I first heard about the Odyssey Project during a “What am I going to do with my life?” conversation with Hilary Strang, who teaches Critical Thinking and Writing to Odyssey students. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, other than what I knew from the description on the Illinois Humanities Council website: “The Odyssey Project provides a college-level introduction to the humanities through text-based seminars led by professors at top-tier colleges and universities to help adults with low incomes more actively shape their own lives and the lives of their families and communities.” This sounded compelling, but my true motivation at the time was gaining some solid tutoring experience for future job applications. I began tutoring with the OP in January, which meant I hung out at Robust Coffee Lounge on 63rd and Woodlawn for an hour or two on Saturdays. To get familiarized with the students and the course content, I began sitting in on weekly U.S. history classes. During the first day, students voiced their personal perceptions of America, and I was hooked. These students were eager to participate, brutally honest, and ready to learn. Attending the classes and meeting students during the Saturday writing workshops was a learning experience for myself; not only was I reading new texts that I had always meant to read but never got around to, but I was meeting students, hearing their individual stories, and learning how the Odyssey Project was directly impacting their lives.
Although I was familiar with the OP through my tutoring experience, this internship has given me the opportunity to really dive into the inner workings of the organization and learn about the variety of often-unseen responsibilities that go into non-profit administration. I was unsure what to expect going in, so I was surprised by how much independence and responsibility I have as an intern. I feel like I am actually able to do significant work within the organization, such as developing new events and workshops to provide continuing resources to enrich and sustain the community of OP alumni. I was given the opportunity to design and lead a creative writing workshop on my own, which was the most amazing (and nerve-wracking) experience. Searching for relevant readings, developing in-class writing exercises, and leading weekly workshops of about fifteen students without direct guidance was scary at first, but I now feel much more confident in my ability to design curriculum and teach adults. But even more than that, leading the workshop was a way for me to get to know the students that this organization serves; learning their stories and hearing how the Odyssey Project has affected their lives has shown me that I am working for an organization that I can really believe in. It may sound hokey, but this mentality is quite a change from my past jobs at hair salons and property management companies—this is a job where I am actually excited to come into work to see what else can be done to help make the Project even better.
MAPH ’12, focus in American Literature
In the midst of final papers and thesis work, all of MAPH was encouraged (at the time, “harassed” seemed like the proper word) to think beyond the last harrowing weeks of school and apply to the summer internships offered through the program. Looking at the list, I was both confused and intrigued by the Odyssey Project. After I did a little research and talked to Hilary Strang, I thought it sounded like a great opportunity to combine my interests in humanities scholarship with a growing desire to get involved with the kind of socially progressive work done by non-profit organizations like the Illinois Humanities Council. After I took the Teaching in the Community College course offered by MAPH, I became more concerned with the social and economic barriers facing many adults who want to pursue higher education. The Odyssey Project tries to eliminate more of these barriers than any other educational institution that I am aware of—even covering bus fare and providing childcare during the classes.
Our work this summer has mostly involved trying to strengthen the alumni network of the Odyssey Project by organizing ongoing programming and events to provide opportunities for graduates to stay involved. Because, like MAPH, the coursework is only one year, it is not much time to build lasting community between students and faculty. Through the summer writing workshops we have been leading (I taught the Professional Writing component), and events like the Open Mic Night, which gave former students a venue to share their creative writing, I have noticed a strong desire in the graduates to stay connected, both to the kind of intellectual work that goes on in Odyssey classrooms and to the relationships that were formed there. It has truly been a pleasure getting to know the students and having the opportunity to help sustain this vibrant community.
Working as an Odyssey Project intern this summer has been a strange and wonderful experience. As Marybeth mentioned, the amount of independence and responsibility given to us was startling. Marybeth had already been involved with Odyssey as a tutor during the year (something I now wish I had been involved with as well), so she understood what went on in Odyssey classrooms better than I did. In the beginning, it was challenging to try to figure out ways to help, while simultaneously learning what the program was all about. I still find it difficult to describe to people exactly what the Odyssey Project is and what I do as an intern. I suppose that is why our boss (it feels really funny using that word) and Odyssey director, Amy Thomas Elder, insists that it is not, in fact, a “program,” but rather, a “project.” We were asked, as interns, to think creatively about what the Odyssey Project is, in its ongoing development. Marybeth came up with the appropriate title, “In Medias Res,” (I admittedly had to Google this one) for a publication we are putting together that will showcase student writing, cover Odyssey events, and include interviews with students and faculty. It means “Into the middle of things” and is a narrative technique—used in Homer’s Odyssey—that throws the reader into the story without establishing its origins. This title reflects the ongoing journey of Odyssey students, the continuing development of the Project, itself, as well as our relationship to the Project as interns. I certainly felt thrown into the middle of things at the start of this internship, and my hope is that the work we are doing for the Odyssey Project will continue to strengthen this wonderful community of intellectuals for years to come.
– Anna Burch
MAPH ’12, Focus in Cinema and Media Studies