This article originally appeared in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.
CHAMPAIGN – Plato or Van Gogh may not be foremost in the mind of the single mother of three who works in a fast-food restaurant to keep her family fed.
But officials from the Odyssey Project would like them to be.
Founded in 2000 by the Illinois Humanities Council on the premise that drawing low-income people into the humanities could offer a way out of poverty, the college-level program has been offered in Champaign since 2006.
The Odyssey project is an eight-month college humanities course for adults 18 and over living on low incomes. Applications are now being taken for the next session, which begins in late August. The deadline for applying is Aug. 3.
"It’s like being given a free $3,000 scholarship," said Tara Lyons, one of the Odyssey Project coordinators.
Students attend classes from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Douglass Branch Library, 504 E. Grove St., C, from late August to December and again from January to May.
University of Illinois faculty members teach the courses in literature, art, moral philosophy, U.S. history, writing and critical-thinking skills.
"If they’re doing the assignments and they finish the course, they will get six college credit hours that are transferable," Lyons said. "This is like $3,000 worth of resources because we also provide free books and notebooks."
In addition, the program offers on-site baby-sitting and free bus tokens.
Although there is space for 36, Lyons said, retaining that many students has been a problem. Last month, only six graduated from the most recent session, which started with about 30.
"The retention is terrible for the program and that’s something we need to work on. We put a lot of energy into helping students stay in the course – free child care, free bus tokens. We definitely are looking for people who committed," Lyons said. "In that population, it seems like there’s always something else that comes up."
But Lyons said the people who deliver the program are philosophical about that.
"Quite a few of those students stuck out the course two, three or four months. That meant they read a book they may not have read before or talked about Plato. If we can at least give some people that opportunity, that’s better than nothing," Lyons said.
Applications can be obtained by calling the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at 217-244-3344 or going to www.prairie.org/odysseyproject.