NU profs help Odyssey Project in second-year effort

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

Underprivileged adults can spend another year exploring Rousseau, Plato and Sartre as the Odyssey Project expands to include a second-year program.

The Odyssey Project, a national organization that provides free humanities courses, books, childcare and transportation for its low-income students, created the new course for its pupils to supplement its first-year program.

Professors from Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University and Lake Forest University teach at the program’s two Chicago locations.

“A lot of students decided they wanted to go on to college after they got a taste of it,” said Angel Ysaguirre, director of programs at the Illinois Humanities Council.

Ysaguirre, who approves grants for local educational initiatives, was instrumental in bringing the Odyssey Project to Chicago.

First-year students study philosophy, art history, literature and American history four hours a week. Tutors also work with students on critical thinking and writing exercises.

The second-year course focuses on literature and philosophy, and emphasizes writing skills. It also helps students with college admissions.

The curriculum “provides an introduction to humanities at a caliber students would receive at a first-rate college,” said Amy Thomas Elder, director of the Odyssey Project in Chicago. Bard College in New York grants credit for the courses.

To qualify for the program, students must be at least 17 and meet a low income requirement. Some students have had some college experience, but many have never been to college — and some do not have high school diplomas.

“A lot of the students are looking for a way to go back to school but are unable to take financial responsibility,” Elder said.

Fifty students currently are enrolled in the Odyssey Project’s first-year course. Fifteen students are in the second-year course. Some shorter non-credit courses also are offered.

Steven Hahn, NU professor of American history, and Michael Leff, professor of communications, both taught in the first-year course last year and will continue teaching in February.

Hahn said the students have had different life experiences and struggles. Many often have families to support or multiple jobs to juggle.

“(Students) want the intellectual engagement the course provides,” Hahn said. “Some see it as a bridge to a university, but mostly they want to talk about important questions.”

Leff agreed. “Here (at NU), students are often reticent to talk because they’re afraid of being wrong. The problem is often getting (Odyssey students) to stop talking.”

Both professors said they enjoy teaching the program’s students.

“Perhaps (I do it for) a selfish reason, but it provides me with a tremendous amount of stimulation,” Hahn said.

The Illinois Humanities Council provides funding for books, transportation and childcare, but the individual universities pay their professors’ salaries.

Tom Bal_эzs, the North Side Odyssey Project coordinator, said the program is not as well known as it ought to be.

“I think it should be a household name, but maybe it’s not a sexy program,” he said.