This article originally appeared in The University of Chicago Chronicle.
Harold Thomas got acquainted with the University years ago while working at Kinko’s on 57th Street. As a reprographics technician, he helped students prepare papers and professors prepare their syllabi. And he liked the stimulating work and university environment. So when the 61-year-old South Side resident heard about a free college course taught, in part, by University faculty, he jumped at the chance to enroll.
"In the 1960s, I quit school to enlist, but I promised myself that I’d go back to school one day," Thomas said after attending an art history class at the University Charter School’s Donoghue campus. "This will help me get going again. I hope to eventually get my degree from Columbia or the Art Institute because I used to be a professional photographer."
The art history class is part of the Odyssey Project (http://www.prairie.org/OdysseyProject), a yearlong, college-level humanities curriculum founded on the premise that education makes one free and promotes sustained reflection, communication and critical thinking skills. It is open to adults with income no more than 150 percent of the poverty level. Textbooks, course materials, on-site childcare, transportation, tutoring, and referral and advocacy services are free.
A national program, Odyssey originated at Bard College with its Clemente Course (http://clemente.bard.edu/) and operates locally under the Illinois Humanities Council (www.prairie.org) in partnership with the University and other institutions. Classes are taught two evenings a week at sites on the South, North and West sides (in Spanish) of Chicago, and in Champaign, Ill. Students who complete both semesters of the first-year course at a high level of achievement receive six transferable credit hours from Bard College. The program also offers a second-year Bridge Course for students who want to continue and perhaps enroll in college.
The first-year course covers literature, U.S. history, critical thinking and writing, philosophy and art history. University teachers strive to create an intellectually engaging college-level experience.
"The work is academically demanding," said Amy Thomas Elder, Director of the Odyssey Project and Lecturer in the Graham School of General Studies. "The most gratifying part of the program is seeing people succeed who would otherwise not get such an opportunity due to their difficult finances, family responsibilities and/or complicated lives."
Odyssey has helped its nontraditional students get promotions and find work, gain confidence and overcome criminal backgrounds, develop a love of art and inspire their children, she added.
Riza Belen, Student Support Specialist with the Odyssey Project, tries to help with problems that surface with the students. "Health issues are the most common concern, but employment and housing issues are increasingly common," she said.
Since Odyssey started in 2000, 40 classes have graduated, each with about 15 students, which represents approximately half the number that had enrolled. Now Odyssey is poised for growth. It is about to start a 10-week course in French in partnership with the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture, and this month, it helped launch a Café Society at the University.
Café Society, also a program of the IHC, is an international movement to foster discussion and debate in relaxed, informal settings. The University group (http://www.prairie.org/cafesociety) meets the second Wednesday of every month at the International House and is open to the community.
"We hope this will attract University students and people staying at the International House, as well as past and present Odyssey students," said Erika Dudley, Parent Education Coordinator of the Odyssey Project. "This is the first ever Café Society at the University of Chicago (except for our pilot gathering in November), and we hope that graduate students and Odyssey students will serve as moderators."
Odyssey is one of the many programs that the Civic Knowledge Project (http://civicknowledge.uchicago.edu/) and its partners offer. As a major civic engagement arm based in the University’s Division of the Humanities, CKP’s programming brings together area residents and University community members to exchange knowledge and ideas. It aims to develop and strengthen connections, helping to overcome the social, economic and racial divisions among various communities on Chicago’s South Side.
Such exchanges were evident during the lively Odyssey class at Donoghue. Curt Hansman, a professor of art history at DePaul University, encouraged students to participate, telling them, "Your views and vision of the world are as valid as those held by anyone else."
She introduced the students to works of art by a variety of artists, from stone-age sculptors to modern abstractionists, sparking a boisterous discussion.
"I love to teach this course because it is so interactive and because I’m committed to the idea that everyone deserves a chance at a good education," Hansman said. "Education is the foundation for civic engagement and community involvement."
Hansman finds many Odyssey students more committed to learning than traditional college students. "They really want to be here," she said.
For example, students from last year’s Odyssey group asked to read a book-Aristotle’s Poetics, which was not on the syllabus-and for an extra class to discuss it. "I’ve never seen that happen with a college class," she said.
In fact, Odyssey enrollees and graduates have a wealth of extra activities to choose from, including trips to theaters and museums, continuing education, events on campus, workshops and video production classes.
That suits Thomas just fine. "The secret of life is the continual search for knowledge," he said.