More than 20 years had passed since Everlidys Cabrera had graduated high school. A native of Puerto Rico, she was proudly raising two boys in Humboldt Park, "the heart of the Puerto Rican community," Cabrera says. She had an administrative job at Chicago Public Schools, a position that has since been eliminated.
Cabrera had taken a few college courses here and there. Dreams of a college diploma floated through her head. However, a commitment to family and supporting that family through work had become the priority.
That's where The Odyssey Project, a national program operated locally by the Illinois Humanities Council, filled a void. The program had its beginnings in 1995 at Bard College in New York, and it has grown to multiple locations nationally. It offers college courses free of charge to low-income students at two locations in Chicago.
At the end of a full year of classes taught from instructors at the University of Chicago, DePaul and Lake Forest College, students receive six transferable credits from Bard College.
For Cabrera, a graduate of the 2007-08 classes, the program was exactly what she was looking for.
"I was really excited I could qualify for the free classes," she says, hoping to finish off her degree at Northeastern Illinois University. "Somewhere along the way, some part of life always got in the way."
The program, director Amy Thomas Elder says, aims to get a wide range of students who have either attended college or will attend college in the future. About half, Elder says, will go on to take other college courses.
"For some," Elder says, "this is college. To take a course and think about college ideas."
In the six years it has existed in Chicago, The Odyssey Project has attracted students of all ages and races. It isn't uncommon for Elder to get a call from a retiree who wants to return to a classroom. The average age is 39 and academic levels vary; Elder says even students who have not yet completed GEDs are welcome to apply. The classroom size is about 30.
"It's small and personal. Everybody knows everybody," Elder says.
The classes held at the Donoghue School on the South Side attract mostly African-Americans, while the classes at the Howard Area Community Center on the North Side are split between African-Americans and Latinos. A Spanish-speaking course is being started up on the West Side.
The classes go from mid-September to mid-May, meeting two nights a week. Friday is the deadline for this year's application. However, Elder says the application deadline for the North Side is being extended into next week.
These are not just free college classes with the promise of a few credit hours. They are tough, high-level courses with high expectations from college professors. Students must read hundreds of pages of text and documents, and participate in classroom discussions. The first week, says literature instructor Hilary Strange of the University of Chicago, they're reading Plato.
As it turns out, those classroom discussions are lively.
"The material is difficult," Elder says. "The discussions are very intense."
Cabrera says she learned that she not only had something to say in class, but what she had to say actually mattered. The classes, which include literature, philosophy, critical thinking and writing, U.S. history and art history, drummed up confidence within her.
"That's something we really hoped for," Strang says. "We expect conversation will come at a pretty high-academic level."
Not that getting there emotionally was easy for Cabrera.
"It's intimidating, just the thought of going back to school," she says. "It's not easy. There are 101 excuses why you can't, -- you can't give up your kids, you can't give up work. It's amazing how much support you can find when you ask for help."
The instructors have been pleased with the enthusiasm they have found in their students.
"What was amazing to me, the energy and commitment all of the students brought," Strang says. "The enthusiasm, the engagement, a real commitment in moving the program."
Cabrera says she discovered college professors who were helpful and not "dumbing down" the material for non-traditional students.
"The nurturing environment was very helpful," she says. "The caliber of the program is really impressive."
To apply, or get more information, go to:
Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.