By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith

Brandy Le never thought a place like the University of Chicago was an option for her.

Le’s parents were South Vietnamese immigrants who settled on the North Side of Chicago with little money. Her mother works on a factory assembly line, and her father died of liver cancer when Le was in grade school. Tuition alone at many private universities would be more than twice her mother’s annual salary.

Le, who was a top student at one of Chicago’s best public high schools, assumed she would probably attend a community college until a friend talked up UChicago. She loved what she was hearing about the school’s strong academics, but she didn’t know how her family could afford it.

Le is exactly the kind of student the Odyssey Scholarships were designed to help. Launched in 2008 by an anonymous gift of $100 million from a College alumnus, the program allows the University to reduce or eliminate student loans for students from families earning less than $75,000 per year.

For Le, now studying neuroscience as a third-year in the College, that aid opened new possibilities. She said Odyssey is “allowing me to have a bigger, wider dream.”

Effort Meets Donor’s Challenge

Odyssey’s generous unnamed donor, dubbed Homer, designed his gift with a challenge for the University to raise an additional $300 million. Homer’s idea: Guarantee half of his gift, and make the other half contingent on meeting specific endowment benchmarks.

Over Alumni Weekend, University officials announced that they have reached their first Challenge goal, which was to build a new endowment valued at $38 million by June 30. Officials credit the combined efforts of more than 2,000 alumni, parents, and friends.

More than 1,100 Odyssey students now attend the College, including Le, who is majoring in biological sciences. She says Odyssey has helped her set goals according to her abilities and hard work, not her family’s income.

“It’s making me realize that I do have the same opportunity as the kid next door who maybe has two doctors for parents and I don’t,” Le says.

Awards relieve financial burden

The Odyssey awards replace student loans with additional grants, freeing students to fully immerse themselves in the University of Chicago experience.

The award saves a low-income student, on average, nearly $35,000 in debt (including principal and interest), on top of already generous financial aid.

Like Le, about one in six Odyssey Scholars comes from a family with a combined annual income of less than $20,000, and one in three is a first-generation college-goer, says Paul Seeley, director for the Odyssey Scholarship Challenge.

“Since the scholarship, many more low- and middle-income kids are able to accept the offer to attend the University of Chicago,” says Jim Nondorf, Vice President and Dean of College Admissions and Financial Aid.

That was the anonymous donor’s intent.

“I give this gift in the hopes that future generations of students will not be prevented from attending the College because of financial incapacity and may graduate without the siren of debt distracting them from fulfilling unremunerative dreams,” Homer wrote.

With Odyssey, ‘Anything is possible’

Jonathan Rodrigues, an Odyssey recipient, says the gift has far surpassed what his mother dreamed was possible for her son.

A house cleaner and single mother of two, Rodrigues’ mother came to the United States alone from rural Brazil in the mid-1980s. In 2012, Rodrigues will become the first person in his family to graduate college.

“I got into one of the best schools in the nation, in the world,” he says. “I can’t describe how proud she is of me today.”

A second-year majoring in Latin American studies and political science, Rodrigues plans on attending law school, likely pursuing a career in immigration or international law.

“I’m glad the University has believed in my potential,” he says.

Like Rodrigues, Le is eager to give back.

Outside of the classroom, she works as a researcher in a neuroscience lab at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She plans to attend medical school and pursue a career in pediatric oncology.

“My dream is to be able to help children in third-world countries,” she says. “This scholarship supports my belief that if I set my mind to it and work hard, anything is possible.”

Originally published on June 8, 2010.