As soon as Ayoung Lee, AB’09, arrived on the UChicago campus, she felt harried. The daughter of South Korean immigrants, she had already set a timeline for herself: complete all required courses to earn a biology degree in three years and apply to medical school.
“When you come from a family of lower socioeconomic background, graduating early and having a succinct education isn’t really a matter of choice,” said Lee, who is from Centreville, Va. “It’s a necessity.”
Yet at the end of her third (and what she assumed was her last) year at UChicago, Lee received an Odyssey Scholarship. With the option of a fourth year financed by a grant, not student loans, she followed her curiosity and ended up double majoring in psychology.
“That extra year was really crucial,” said Lee, who now researches gesture and language development in psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow’s UChicago lab. This fall, she’ll start a master’s program in educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. “I had the chance to explore a secondary academic interest, and it ended up being what I pursued.”
Lee is one of almost 2,000 students who have had their College experience transformed by an Odyssey Scholarship . Now in its fifth year, the groundbreaking program started in May 2007 with a $100 million gift from an anonymous alumnus whom the University dubbed “Homer.” At the time, it was the largest donation in UChicago history.
Odyssey provides grants to students whose families make $90,000 or less per year, enabling them to pursue a Chicago education without crippling debt. But, to his generous gift, Homer added a challenge: he would fund the full annual cost of the scholarships until 2023—if University alumni, parents and friends created an endowment to keep the awards going in perpetuity.
The University community quickly rose to the challenge. By June 2010, it surpassed by $6 million Homer’s first fundraising benchmark of $38 million in scholarship endowment. To date, more than 6,200 donors have contributed to the Odyssey Scholarships, a diverse group that includes trustees, multiple generations of alumni, and even former award recipients like Lee.
Donors and scholars came together to mark Odyssey’s five-year anniversary at a May 5 celebration of philanthropy and the liberal arts.
Yet the challenge is far from over. To sustain the Odyssey program after Homer’s payments cease, the University must raise an additional $15 million—the amount needed to ensure a $150 million endowment.
For Dayna Langfan , AB’83, and husband Lawrence Heller, AB’84, MBA’88, donors who funded one of 113 named Odyssey Scholarships, the grants embody the type of “pure form of education” they feel is most optimal for every College student.
“There certainly are easier places to get a four-year degree,” said Langfan, who believes College students should have the freedom to throw themselves completely into intellectual pursuits. “This is not for the faint-hearted.”
Participating in the Odyssey Challenge, she said, was a way of ensuring that “a highly achieving student can pursue his or her academic passions at the College and experience that caliber of education without being burdened or distracted by taking on such enormous personal debt.”
Donor Anna Tenuta, AB’10, a former Odyssey recipient, agreed. “The program is very UChicago to the core. I always knew I would want to give back.”
Rather than having to take on multiple part-time jobs to finance her education, the scholarship “allowed me to focus on my studies and take on internship experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” Now working at a boutique communications firm in New York, she hopes to give future students that same opportunity.
Like many, investment manager Lawrence Miller , AB’93, was inspired by Odyssey’s goal of making a Chicago education more accessible. “You want students to be able to focus on learning,” he said. “You can’t do that if you’re worried that your parents are getting a second mortgage on their house.”
By placing a College education within reach, the scholarships are creating a more diverse student landscape. In the class of 2013, for example, 32 percent of Odyssey Scholars are first-generation college students.
“When you look at the totality of the Odyssey Program,” said Miller, “it’s really transformative,” both for UChicago and for scholars. “The University has this fantastic ability to pick whomever it wants, but there’s no point in doing that if the people you pick can’t afford to come here.”
For students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend the College, scholarships are a key recruiting tool. “When you’re coming from a low-income family,” Lee added, “it’s really important to think practically.” With its daunting price tag, a UChicago degree can be difficult to justify without significant aid.
“No one,” she said, “should feel they can’t access a great liberal arts education for financial reasons.”