Listening to—and engaging with—the community

The Humanities Research Institute (HRI) at the University of Illinois fosters interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. LAS students can get involved with the institute in many ways, including as undergraduate interns. 

Jonathan Zhang

What does it mean to be an HRI intern? Jonathan Zhang, a senior majoring in CS + anthropology, interns with HRI’s Odyssey Project. He shares his experience.

Question: What is the Odyssey Project?

Answer: The Odyssey Project is a program that offers free humanities courses to low-income, income-eligible adult learners in East Central Illinois. The students come from many different backgrounds, ages, and life experiences, but most importantly they all want to be there because they actively want to learn.

In class, everyone brings in their whole selves and their life experiences into our discussions about whatever we’re learning that day in the humanities. The subjects we’re covering this semester are U.S. history and literature; last semester it was art history and philosophy. They also have critical thinking and writing both semesters. I’ve really enjoyed being in this different classroom environment!

Q: If you could use one word to describe what you do with Odyssey, what would it be?

A: The first thing that popped into my head was "listen." I offer writing help with students' essays outside of class. A lot of my assistance has really just been listening to what the student had to say and then trying my best to help them record it or rephrase it in a way that fits the essay's objectives. When I’m in the classroom, it’s a lot of listening and learning from people’s perspectives on these subjects.

Q: How has seeing adults return to education influenced your own view of learning?

A: Learning doesn't stop after college. I'm going to graduate this semester, and it reminds me that even past the undergraduate level of college, you can still find opportunities out there to learn. There are communities of people of different ages and backgrounds who want to learn things. They are passionate students, but there are barriers to access college. Through things like the Odyssey Project, we can help get people into classrooms and into the environments where they can thrive and learn.

Q: What is your favorite part of working with Odyssey?

A: The instructors incorporate relevant social issues into their curriculum, into the classroom discussions. The students' responses are engaging, as well. I enjoy the Odyssey classroom—the instructors and students, the kind of space they’ve created. It is very liberating. No one’s afraid to speak their opinion. They connect what they're learning to what is going on in the real world and their personal experiences.

That’s one thing I definitely enjoy. The environment is really positive. Everyone's supportive, and they're funny. They’re really funny, so it’s just a fun place to be.