By Susie Allen, Laura Demanski and Helen Gregg, courtesy of The University of Chicago Magazine

They’re widely curious, civic-minded, ambitious, optimistic. They’re imagining ways their work can better other people’s lives, and finding solutions. And they’re just getting started. Put most simply, the 3,800 Odyssey Scholars who have been part of the College’s distinctive financial aid program are UChicagoans.

But for many of them, the College would have been out of reach without the loan-free aid provided by their scholarships. Eliminating educational debt was Odyssey’s first target, a part of the program since an anonymous alumnus known as Homer launched it in 2007 with a $100 million gift and a $300 million fundraising challenge. At the time it was the largest gift in the University’s history, given, Homer said, in the hope that financial reasons would not keep talented students from attending the College and that they could “graduate without the siren of debt distracting them from taking risks and fulfilling dreams.”

Today Odyssey does that and more. Now scholars can receive support not only for the costs of their education but for study abroad, substantive summer internships, and other experiences that enrich their scholarly work and ensure they’ll be ready for their next steps.

The University has also added support for high school students, in the form of the Collegiate Scholars Program. The three-year enrichment initiative helps prepare talented Chicago Public Schools students to apply to and thrive at top universities—some of them in the College as Odyssey Scholars. Collegiate Scholars and Odyssey received a major boost in 2016 through a $100 million expansion of the Odyssey Scholarship Program launched with a $50 million gift and challenge from Harriet Heyman, AM’72, and her husband, Sir Michael Moritz to greatly expand financial support for students.

The investments made by Homer and Heyman and Moritz, and gifts from more than 13,000 other individuals over the years, tell a powerful story about a powerful idea.

So do the lives of the scholars, whether their own journeys are underway or just embarking. In anticipation of Odyssey’s 10th anniversary on May 31, get to know a few of these alumni and students:

Sean Dickson

Sean Dickson, AB’09

Senior manager of health systems integration, National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors

Last fall Sean Dickson, who works on improving health care access with the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, began hearing from several of the state-run drug assistance programs he represents about a sudden and steep pharmaceutical price hike. Daraprim, an antiparasitic drug used by patients with compromised immune systems, now costs $750 a tablet, up from $13.50, and the state agencies were struggling to stock it.

NASTAD filed the first and only complaint to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration about the pricing practices of the drug’s new manufacturer, Turing Pharmaceuticals, led by then-CEO Martin Shkreli. Dickson also worked closely with a New York Times reporter to break the story of the price increase, and continues to collaborate with the government officials investigating Turing.

Exposing Turing’s “most egregious practices” was one of the proudest moments of his public health career thus far, Dickson said. The Shkreli case made drug pricing a focus of the national health care conversation, “and I think that we have a real opportunity here to make some systemic changes in how we finance medicine in this country.”

Dickson has been working on public health issues since his time at the College, when he volunteered for several local organizations through UChicago’s Community Service Leadership Training Corps (now Seeds of Justice) and traveled to China on a University-sponsored human rights fellowship to help implement HIV prevention programs.

In China he found himself drawing on his UChicago course work, particularly Western Civ. Studying how Western culture developed to emphasize individualism helped him realize how different it was in China—there, “you have agency relative to your social group or your career or your relationship within a family”—and that HIV prevention strategies focused on individual empowerment weren’t going to be effective in Beijing.

Dickson’s BA project on community-based HIV prevention in gay Chinese men was named the best public policy undergraduate thesis for 2009. At UChicago “there were a lot of classes that have shaped who I am today,” Dickson said, but “it was definitely the ancillary opportunities to apply the knowledge” that gave him a head start on his career.

Dickson almost didn’t apply to UChicago; his parents, a teacher and a small-business owner in rural Illinois, were worried the cost would be prohibitive. But the University’s need-based aid allowed him to attend, and the Odyssey Scholarship meant Dickson could go to graduate school without worrying about college debt. He plans to continue working in health care access; the Shkreli case sparked national discussion about drug pricing, and Dickson is excited “to continue to be a part of that conversation.”

Liliana Zaragoza, AB’10

John Payton appellate and Supreme Court advocacy fellow, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

As a third-year, Liliana Zaragoza would take “a very long ride”—the westbound No. 55 bus to the northbound No. 9 bus—to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. There, as a paralegal intern at the National Immigrant Justice Center, she helped with visa application cases, including some for women who were victims of violent crime.

One of the first cases she worked on, involving a woman who had been the victim of robbery and battery in a Chicago alley, was successful—the woman got her visa. The victory was a “turning point” that helped Zaragoza realize she wanted to go to law school: “I saw that advocacy could have a real impact on someone’s life.”

Today the Tucson, Ariz. native is a graduate of Columbia Law School and is the inaugural John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she focuses on civil rights issues, including voting and education. She’s currently litigating a challenge to an Alabama law that requires a photo ID to vote. “It’s very much a continuation of a battle that’s been going on for decades” against laws and policies around the country that disproportionately disenfranchise black and Latino voters, she said.

The Odyssey Scholarship didn’t exist when Zaragoza arrived at UChicago in 2006, and while the University gave her financial aid, it wasn’t as much as she’d been offered from other schools. Coming to Chicago was “a leap of faith,” she said. The Odyssey program launched in 2008, just as Zaragoza was figuring out “not only my major but in some ways my calling.” Her scholarship gave her the freedom to not just do work-study on campus, but also expand her horizons with unpaid internships at the National Immigrant Justice Center and the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (now Alianza America) in her third year at UChicago.

Zaragoza majored in international studies and minored in human rights, taking courses in anthropology, sociology and gender studies. Her classes inspired her to expand her education beyond Hyde Park: “I learned in the classroom from my human rights courses and my sociology and anthropology courses that, even as a young person in college, I could be involved in the organizing that could make people’s lives better.”

She’s thankful for her rigorous undergraduate experience. The intellectual demands of college made her legal education less intimidating, and what she learned in Chicago has stayed with her. “I think the University of Chicago prepared me well,” she said, “for not only law school but just to think.”

Rebeca Carrillo, AB’15

Software engineer, Vaporstream Inc.

Rebeca Carrillo didn’t decide to apply to UChicago until deadline day, and then mostly because she wanted to write the essay. “I didn’t think I would be able to get in, but I said, ‘I’m just going to apply anyway.’” So she did, “and it worked out.”

The uncommon essay question that drew her in? “I actually made up my own.” The prompt she gave herself was “You’ve been an alien on earth researching the humans for a year. Give a report back to your fellow aliens.”

About a year out of school, she reports that the College was what she thought it would be: “a place that was weird enough and willing to put up with the things I wanted to investigate. I have very niche academic interests, and I’m very intense about those interests, and it seemed like a place that was going to foster that.”

Carrillo grew up in a New Mexico town 45 minutes from the Mexican border, and her family felt some of the repercussions of a Juarez drug cartel’s turf battles. The experience made her want to study organized crime operations, particularly the social networks through which criminal groups organize themselves and share information.

Carrillo worked for two years on her BA thesis analyzing the networks of two Mexican drug cartels. Examining tweets and Internet news sources, she modeled the organizational structures underlying the crime. The work drew on network theory that likens social networks to biological ones, and she found her Core bio sequence came in unexpectedly handy.

Before arriving at UChicago, Carrillo said she didn’t appreciate the vast variety of cultural experiences across the country and around the world. “I came from a neighborhood where almost every family spoke Spanish and English at home and basically nobody had any money.” At UChicago her own network immediately expanded. “I met people from different countries, I met people with totally different cultural values, and that was a really good experience I never would have had otherwise.”

Down the road she may go to graduate school to continue her crime network research. Right now she’s a back-end software engineer for a Chicago company that provides messaging to hospitals and other clients that need ultra-secure communications.

The job is year-round, but in a sense she’s still observing the quarter system. “Every 10 weeks I have a question I want to answer,” she said. Right now she’s focused on “hammock-driven development,” or taking more time away from the computer to think through the design phase of a coding project, although“it’s a little more complicated than that.” But the “idea of having a revolving question” is one of the ways UChicago stays with her.

Chloe Glispie, AB’16

Program coordinator, University of Chicago Collegiate Scholars Program and Office of Special Programs-College Prep

“Thank God for nosy mothers,” joked South Side native Chloe Glispie. It was her mother who found an email that Glispie had ignored about the University of Chicago’s College Bridge Program and pushed her to apply. After just a short time in the program, which gives talented Chicago Public Schools students the chance to take UChicago courses for free, Glispie knew “this is where I need to be, this is where I want to go.”

Early exposure to the College and the counsel of her adviser, Bonnie Kanter, also helped Glispie discover her interest in comparative human development. She settled on her major before she even matriculated.

Then after her second year, “life decided to happen”—Glispie’s mother suffered a stroke that left her a paraplegic, and Glispie, balancing classes with overseeing her mother’s care and finances, didn’t know if she’d be able to finish college. But with support from Kanter and the College, and her local church congregation, Glispie received her diploma on time in June. That day, “I just kept saying, Mama, we made it,” she remembered.

Glispie is grateful her Odyssey Scholarship gave her an education and a degree that will help her support not only herself but her mother as well. She’s also made a point of sharing her UChicago experience with her family by bringing them to campus events. At Logan Center Family Saturdays, she loves watching her young cousins and niece “become bright-eyed watching a black man play the violin. … I can look at their faces and say, OK, it was worth it, every late-night paper, it was worth it.”

Glispie decided to remain on campus after graduation; she currently works with two University programs designed to bring low-income high school students to UChicago for academic enrichment and to experience college life. Down the line, she wants to become a clinical social worker and to open a nonprofit focused on helping struggling or homeless teens, all on the South Side. “It’s home,” she said.

Growing up, Glispie didn’t feel that way about the South Side. She saw her neighborhood of Auburn-Gresham, on the border of West Englewood, as “a prison”: The violence often left her and her family feeling hopeless. “The dialogue in my house was always to get out, get out, get out,”  but “being out of that environment for a couple years, I just realized that the goal should have never been to get out. It should have been to go back and make it better, and so that is exactly what I intend to do.”

Griffin Cox

Fourth-year student in the College

At UChicago, fourth-year Griffin Cox has surprised himself. Despite “not diggin’ the math” in general, one of his favorite courses so far has been linear algebra. “I just started seeing vectors all around me,” he said. “Everything was a vector. The way that people were moving was vectors. I could see how my face was constructed in three—or four—vectors, if you consider time. I’m not even a math person, but that just sort of blew my mind.”

Seeing the world through a mathematical lens is one of many unforeseen developments for Cox at UChicago. “If you could go back and tell my high school self, which was ‘straight As, study, study, study,’ that I would be joining a fraternity, I would have just laughed,” he admitted. But the Chicago native loves the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood he’s found at Alpha Delta Phi. “I’ve met so many diverse people. We have brothers with all different majors, every different background. It’s a great place for ideas to spread.”

Cox learned of his Odyssey Scholarship during a difficult time for his family, as his mother was battling the stomach cancer that later took her life. Medical bills from the illness meant “I was looking for need-based financial aid. … I knew that was going to be a factor.” The scholarship lessened the family’s financial strain. “I’m really grateful,” he said.

Cox has immersed himself in psychology classes and looking ahead to life after graduation, when he’ll pursue a career in web design. After flirting with computer science and economics, he chose psychology as his major—not the most traditional preparation for his professional ambitions, but to his mind fitting. He hopes the data-handling skills and human behavior insights from his course work will help him build websites that work seamlessly for the people who use them. “I’ve had a lot of six-month ‘I should do this’ feelings,” but his interest in web design has “stuck around for six years.” Over the summer, he began teaching himself full-stack web development.

During Fall Quarter he took courses on the psychology of decision-making and on sensation and perception. Both classes, he said, revealed how often people mistakenly think their actions are logical—a subject that fascinates him. “You’re vulnerable to these kinds of systematic errors in judgment. Studying them with the scientific method is important,” he said. Over time he’s honed his skepticism and learned to question “the truth in front of your eye, because it may not be the truth. That’s UChicago for you.”

Ayesha ‘Ash’ Siddiqui 

Second-year student in the College

Second-year Ayesha “Ash” Siddiqui didn’t think much about going to college when she was younger. Her parents, who went to college in India, were unfamiliar with American schools and her older brother had dropped out of a local Chicago city college to help with the family business, a travel agency.

When she started high school, her counselor encouraged her to start considering her higher education options. Her top choice became the University of Chicago when she was accepted into the University’s College Bridge Program, which gives talented low-income students the chance to take UChicago classes for free. Siddiqui took Philosophy of Mind with lecturer Benjamin Callard—a course she still calls the most memorable one she’s taken at the College so far. Class discussions were “very nuanced, very theoretical,” she said, and the readings captured her interest. “It was very exciting, it was very new, it was very UChicago.”

Living in Snell-Hitchcock residence hall, Siddiqui is immersed in College life, serving as a registration aide during Orientation Week and competing on her house’s Scav team. She’s double majoring in anthropology and classics, with an eye on attending law school. Her first Metcalf Internship (all Odyssey Scholars are guaranteed one after their first year in the College) was with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office in Florida, where she provided administrative support to both prosecutors and victim/witness counselors, largely for domestic violence cases. She enjoyed helping explain the complicated U.S. justice system to her clients—it was that complexity that sparked her interest in becoming a lawyer in the first place.

“I was always attracted by the convolutedness” of the law, said Siddiqui, who litigates simulated cases with UChicago’s Moot Court team during the school year. Seeing the day-to-day work of lawyers in the country’s fourth-largest prosecutor’s office reaffirmed her desire to attend law school.

But “I’m also the kind of person who has like five different backup plans,” so Siddiqui is considering pursuing graduate work in classics or anthropology. Before her internship in Miami, she completed a five-week spoken Latin program in Rome and has since been thinking about studying ancient languages in other countries, a possibility she said stems from the education and the freedom her Odyssey Scholarship has given her.

“Having the privilege to even have backup plans of what I want to do—and thinking that those might even be feasible—is all due to the fact that I’m an Odyssey Scholar.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the fall 2016 edition of The University of Chicago Magazine.

Originally published on May 16, 2017.