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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004 11:36 pm

An awakening

Life has long been a juggling act for Springfield resident Brenda B. At times she has worked as many as three jobs to support her four kids, while squeezing in college-level courses when she could.

But Brenda never had the time nor money to take the classes that most interested her.

Then she enrolled in The Odyssey Project, a national program that offers free college credit in the humanities to low-income people.

Tuition and books are free, babysitting is offered on-site, and transportation vouchers are provided. Two evenings a week, for eight months, Brenda studied American history and literature, philosophy, art history, and composition.

"My baby learned to crawl and roll over while I learned to write term papers," says Brenda, who was among the program's first graduating class in Springfield.

Applications are still being taken for this year's program, which is set to begin the middle of next month. Classes will be held at the Springfield Urban League Head Start Center, 1108 E. Cook St.

The Odyssey Project is offered at some 20 sites across the country, and graduates can receive college credits transferable to colleges anywhere in the U.S. It is sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council in partnership with the Bard College Clemente Program in New York City.

Candidates must be at least 17-years-old and have incomes less than 150 percent of the national poverty level. That means, for example, a single person must earn less than $14,000 a year; a couple must earn less than $18,000; and a family of four must earn less than $28,000.

Locally 27 students have graduated from The Odyssey Project since it began in 2002, according to program director and composition professor Nancy McKinney.

"This program can be a real awakening," says McKinney. "It gives people a chance to slow down and look inside themselves."

The program attracts people from a wide array of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and age groups. There are retirees, single moms, and teenagers fresh out of high school.

But one thing unites them, according to Richard Palmer, a retired philosophy professor from MacMurray College.

"Students here want to learn," Palmer says. "They are highly motivated."

And, according to Brenda, the professors help to create an atmosphere that enables even the most timid students to succeed.

"It's totally open," she says, "the way the humanities should be."

To learn more about the Odyssey Project contact Nancy McKinney at 820-6150.

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