Your Odyssey Begins Here: Three alumni on why you should restart your education with the Odyssey Project

OP23 Classroom Odisea Little Village9911 by Glitter Guts

By Hannah Kucharzak

Read Time 7 minutes
May 24, 2024

We asked Dorian, Aileen, and Lori about their decision to continue their education for free with the Odyssey Project. Their answers will show you that this is not your typical college classroom. 

Going back to school as an adult can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Everyone’s past experiences with education are unique—whether you felt validated, understood, or lost throughout school, you may be hesitant to tackle this next step in life. If you’re not sure if a traditional classroom is where you belong, you’re not alone.

Meet Dorian Nash, Aileen Ocana, and Lori Bibbs, three Chicagoans who took the leap to continue their education in the Odyssey Project/Proyecto Odisea, a cost-free, student-centered humanities program. The Odyssey Project makes it possible for income-eligible students of all ages to earn up to 11 college credits from the University of Illinois Chicago, transferable to any accredited university. For Dorian, Aileen, and Lori, Odyssey was unlike any other classroom they had known. 

OP Alums with descriptions

“I think it was my first week of class with Charles and Amy Elder [former instructors] and we discussed Plato's Allegory of the Cave,” said Dorian. “Oh, my goodness, it was such a great mixture of intense dialogue, humor, and deep thought as we made relevant correlations around perception, illusion, and truth. I left class that night and I thought to myself, I belong here.”

What advice would our alumni give to someone who is considering going back to school with the Odyssey Project? Let’s hear what they have to say about what’s possible with an Odyssey education. 
  • OP24 Graduation ilhumanitiesodyssey05112024 0577

    Some Odyssey Project/Proyecto Odisea Class of 2024 graduates pose for a picture. (All photos by GlitterGuts.)

  • OP23 Classroom Odyssey Uptown 4849 by Glitter Guts

    Uptown students participate in class discussions.

  • OP23 Classroom Odyssey Bronzeville 9462 by Glitter Guts

    A Bronzeville student shares their perspective in class.

  • OP23 Classroom Odisea Little Village0060 by Glitter Guts

    Proyecto Odisea students in Little Village listen closely to a presentation.

  • OP24 Graduation ilhumanitiesodyssey05112024 1758

    Odyssey Project Class of 2024 graduates celebrate after the ceremony.

How is an Odyssey classroom different from a traditional school setting?

DORIAN: The strength of an Odyssey classroom is that it meets where you are but then it pushes you to be more than you thought you could be. I had not been part of a classroom setting for over 10 years and really didn't think it was possible for me but for the first time in my life something ignited in me through the Odyssey program. I think it's because the faculty takes an approach that encourages rigorous class discussion and critical thinking. I have continued my education beyond Odyssey and it's all because Odyssey took the time to "see" me.

LORI: In traditional school settings I feel that the focus is more on a student's GPA rather than on the student themself. At Odyssey, there's no pressure on you to get good grades in order to succeed... Everyone has a say, a voice, and can be heard. Your thoughts, opinions, and input count towards your participation.   

At Odyssey, there are a lot more resources offered to make sure we all make it... successfully. From transportation assistance to child/elder care, to providing some food to help keep us focused while in class. The classes are free, supplies and books are provided. That was a big help for me, especially as my finances took on several twists and turns. I was worried that I would not be able to return to school because I was not in a position to afford college classes.  

Apply to the Odyssey Project by June 15, 2024

Before Odyssey, what feelings did you have about your past experiences with educational settings, like high school?

DORIAN: I struggled in high school but it wasn't necessarily apparent to my teachers or parents because I did just enough to not fail. I had the intellect, but I lacked the focus. I was going through a lot internally and emotionally and I didn't have the language then to communicate what I needed. I didn't necessarily feel frustrated, I just didn't feel "seen". I graduated from Academy of Our Lady and went on to Southern Illinois University but I still struggled and left after my first year. I took classes here and there but that feeling never left me. That feeling or experience of "unseen-ness" is not germane to me, I know many of our youth and young adults today identify with those feelings.

What was it about Odyssey that made you want to apply? Why did you choose Odyssey instead of other programs?

DORIAN: I remember meeting and interviewing with Daryl Heller, former faculty with Odyssey. During our conversation he made me feel welcome and encouraged me that I was a great candidate for the program and that this was just a start to a new chapter in my life. How incredibly right he was. Me simply saying yes for myself changed my life. I didn't realize it then, but I really needed a community. I needed the free access to an education as I was rebuilding my life. There is no other program like Odyssey.

AILEEN: I chose to enroll in the Odyssey program primarily because its focus is on humanities studies, including Latin-American literature, art, history besides other classes, and it offers college credits. I am always looking to learn something new. I think I chose Odyssey because the alignment with my academic background gives me the opportunity to explore my academic passions.

What was your favorite part of your Odyssey experience?

AILEEN: Definitely the cultural immersion aspect, especially in the Art class. The teacher's expertise transformed every session into an interesting journey through Chicago's vibrant art scene. I recalled how she explained in detail the paintings at The Art Institute, and also our visit to the Chicago Cultural Center. Another of my favorites was the Literature class, the teacher had a great passion for literature and through her I was able to connect with an International Poetry festival. [Overall,] I was surprised about the professors leading the courses, most of them working in very important universities in Chicago, which definitely enriched my experience.

LORI: All of it. The staff and instructors, as well as the classmates that I met. We all have a personal journey, and some parts for those journeys, we share a common thread between all of us.

After completing the program, what difference has it made in your life?

DORIAN: It has set me on a path of continued learning. I strongly believe that a substantive education in the humanities should be a requirement for every human on the planet. It is what keeps us in touch with our humanity. My untraditional path to learning has been transformative for me. It changed the trajectory of what was then a corporate career to the impactful work that I do as the Director of Learning and Cultural Workforce Development at The National Public Housing Museum. It changed that little girl who felt unseen to someone who is comfortable walking in the sun and letting her voice be heard. 

AILEEN: Odyssey positively influenced my professional trajectory and personal pursuits. The program added personal growth, opening doors for further educational opportunities. Completing the Odyssey course has shaped my perspective, passions and aspirations, I can see the world in a different way.

What advice would you give to someone who is on the fence about applying?

DORIAN: Don't walk, RUN! Become part of the Odyssey tradition. Think about it. If you are lucky enough to continue learning and growing, it is a gift to yourself. Create your Odyssey, you will not regret it.

LORI: Go for it. Try it. It's not what you would expect for higher learning experiences.  It's totally different and you might feel quite surprised, as I did. I am truly grateful for the experience.

AILEEN: I would encourage them to take the opportunity to join a great community of students and professionals; through this course they will discover different perspectives, disciplines, that will enrich their opportunities. They will connect with a diverse community of fellow students, engage with professors, and gain invaluable insights and perspectives that may set the path to pursue other courses or careers. 

The Odyssey Project/Proyecto Odisea is a free college credit-bearing program for Chicago-area adults available in English and Spanish. Not only are courses free, but students also receive free books and materials, plus optional transportation and child or elder care support. Find out if you are eligible and submit your application to join the class of 2025 by June 15, 2024!

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