The Odyssey family
Elon’s Odyssey Scholars share a bond that carries them through the campus experience and into successful lives after graduation.
By Madison Taylor
The stories almost always start the same way. Students who become part of the Odyssey Scholars program at Elon University do so almost by accident. First they hear about Elon from a high school teacher, guidance counselor, admissions recruiter or even an alumnus. They browse the university website and like, or often love, what they see and decide Elon is the perfect choice—their “dream school.” But getting to Elon is a dream in more ways than one. They all face a substantial financial hardship, so attending any college, especially a private school such as Elon, is a practical impossibility without help.
These students are different in other ways, too. They’re high achievers and future leaders, even though they might not yet be aware of it.
Take Justin Brown, for example. A senior from Silk Hope in rural North Carolina, Brown is the first person from his family to attend college. Raised by a single mom, he had no idea how to even start the application process, much less obtain financial aid. He had little idea such help was even possible. “I started from square one,” he says. A teacher and Elon graduate at Jordan-Matthews High School told him about Elon. He used Google to find more information and liked what he saw enough to learn more and visit the campus five times. He found out about Odyssey scholarships while researching the Honors Fellows program. “I just happened upon it while rummaging through the site to find information,” he says.
In the same week he was accepted to Elon, he also received notice he would not only be an Honors Fellow but an Odyssey Scholar, too. Four years later, Brown is completing his major in religious studies and planning to attend graduate school. He’s been accepted into Harvard University, but decided instead to attend Indiana University Bloomington, which offered him a full scholarship. He never thought he would be where he is today. For Brown, it’s an interesting journey. Along the way he gained more than an Elon education. He was part of something much larger. “Odyssey and Honors Fellows take over your life, in a good way,” he says.
The family plan
Talk to any Odyssey Scholar and the words “support” and “family” come up often. Senior Chann Little, a communications major from Mount Holly, North Carolina, a small town near Charlotte, calls his fellow Odyssey Scholars “my family away from my actual family.” Little is a blogger, videographer and social media presence who already has starred on an MTV reality show, “True Life: I Have a Pushy Parent.” His goal upon graduation from Elon is to land a job in social media for a corporation and ultimately work his way to Los Angeles where he can be an influencer.
For Little, a first-generation college student whose father died when he was 9, the Odyssey program was essential to his success in ways well beyond the financial benefits. “I was able to meet so many students coming from the same backgrounds,” Little says. “Through Odyssey I was able to find a group of people like me. It led to people I could relate to. I was with people I could trust and that was important.”
Brenna Humphries is an Odyssey Scholar who graduated from Elon in 2013 with a degree in business administration. She’s now pursuing an MBA at Washington University in St. Louis. She arrived on the Elon campus from Marietta, Georgia, as the second member of her family to attend college. Her family migrated to America from Saint Vincent, an island in the Caribbean. “Elon was difficult at times [for Odyssey Scholars] because we were from different social and academic backgrounds. We had challenges our other classmates didn’t,” she says. “We were able to bond. It was a sense of community that’s mattered the most. The friendships were great. That honestly outweighs the financial support.”
Yousaf Khan is a first-year Odyssey Scholar. Originally from Pakistan, his family arrived in the United States in 2003. He learned English after they moved to Newark, New Jersey, and eventually attended private school in Delaware at St. Andrews School. He was accustomed to meeting new people and encountering different experiences. Still, the cohesiveness of his fellow Odyssey Scholars stands apart. “Odyssey Scholars are like my family here. They were the first people who I came in contact with. I think we all relate on a certain level. We’ve all had certain struggles that we’ve had to go through,” Khan says. “We take care of each other. I never got a sense of that with any other organization. We’re always hanging out, we’re always doing stuff together. It’s hard to describe until you’re in it.”
Joanna Salerno, a junior Elon student and Odyssey Scholar from Wyckoff, New Jersey, is majoring in psychology and minoring in neuroscience and biology. She says the Odyssey Scholars program paved the way for her to attend “an amazing university.” It also provided a good bit more. “The Odyssey Scholars program is not simply a scholarship program, it is a support system and a family,” she says. “The directors and staff of this program helped me tremendously my freshman year in adjusting to life as a college student, and the support did not stop there. They have been there for me throughout my time at Elon and are always available whether I need guidance and advice or just want to talk about life.”
That’s exactly how the program is structured.
Reaching full potential
Part of Elon’s Center for Access and Success, the Odyssey Scholars program is tailored for academically gifted students who face overwhelming financial issues or have no real experience in how higher education works. Odyssey Scholars are chosen based on academic strength, critical thinking, community participation and high financial need. It’s a program meant to develop future leaders who might otherwise be unable to reach their full potential due to financial constraints.
The students come from all walks of life and a variety of backgrounds. Many are the first in their families to attend college but a large number come from families facing new financial issues that make higher education more of a strain than a viable option. “There are lots of reasons people have financial trouble,” says Esther Freeman, who along with Marcus Elliott directs the Odyssey Scholars program. “So many things happen in life that can derail a college education. All it takes is one job loss and now a family is on food stamps and one step from losing their homes.”
Sean J. Burke understands what Freeman means. Burke, of Rumson, New Jersey, graduated from Elon in 2014 with a degree in finance. He now works in New York as an analyst for Citigroup. Odyssey made it possible. Burke’s family was financially devastated by the economic downturn in 2008 followed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. His brother, Alec, is currently an Odyssey Scholar at Elon. “When I visited Elon I was automatically drawn to it and knew I wanted to come here,” Burke says. “I looked at the Elon website for financial aid options and found the Odyssey program.”
Through the Odyssey program, Burke took part in a service trip to the Mississippi Delta where he worked with at-risk middle school students. He also studied international business in Barcelona and the Pacific Rim, a global perspective that aided his future career at Citigroup. “Odyssey opened my life up to a bunch of experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Burke says. “The program gave me the tools to succeed after college. I don’t know that I would have had that foundation without it.”
For students, the economic needs are all different, Freeman says, but the ultimate goals are remarkably similar. “The common bond is their academic achievement and leadership capabilities. They’re ambitious,” Freeman says. “Their drive is not only making themselves and their families better but the world better. Their passion is not just for themselves but for the community.
“They leverage each other’s strengths.”
Outside the bubble
Humphries says she applied to Elon as a “reach” school after learning about it from an alumnus. After reading about the university, she “fell in love with the campus, the programs and the number of students that study abroad.” While scholarship money was available for her at state universities in Georgia, Elon was her No. 1 choice. She knew her parents couldn’t swing the cost financially but they encouraged her to apply anyway. “It took a while to get the scholarship money but when I did, it was my dream school,” Humphries says. “I got an Odyssey scholarship and a lot of financial aid. I graduated from Elon completely debt-free.”
Jean Rattigan-Rohr, director of the Center for Access and Success, which oversees the Odyssey Scholars program, says the program meets 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated need. In many instances, the scholarship is combined with Elon grants, Pell grants, Stafford loans and work study. Each Odyssey Scholar receives a $2,000 stipend that may be used to buy books, a laptop computer or other school-related expenses, including new clothes for job interviews. And significantly to students, Odyssey Scholars receive a $4,000 stipend that goes toward global education or a Study USA experience. More than 90 percent of Odyssey Scholars participate in global travel, Rattigan-Rohr says.
Brown, for example, augmented his study of Hinduism by traveling to India. Salerno is spending this spring in Queensland, Australia, an experience she says is already having a profound impact on her life. “I have met people from all around the world and am learning daily about different cultures and traditions,” she says. “My mind is being expanded and I am seeing the world outside of the little bubble I grew up in.”
The Odyssey program is wide-ranging and engaging. Over their four years at Elon, Odyssey Scholars will be offered networking opportunities with industry professionals and Elon alumni. They participate in a first-year summer orientation week that acclimates them to the college environment before fall studies begin. It’s a basic tutorial about what life on a college campus is like. Each Odyssey first-year is assigned a mentor. The program also includes annual retreats, monthly class meetings and one-on-one academic and career counseling. During spring break this year, the Odyssey Scholars traveled to Atlanta for networking and tours of corporations such as Coca-Cola.
It’s a program that works. Odyssey Scholars are among Elon’s top-performing students. They are regularly represented on the President’s and Dean’s Lists and have received prestigious honors such as the Lumen Prize, Elon’s highest award for undergraduate research and creative achievement. There are currently 118 Odyssey Scholars at Elon. Ultimately, the university would like to raise that number to 400—100 in every class.
The success story stands in contrast to similar scholarships offered at other universities. The retention and graduation rates of first-generation and high-financial need students are traditionally very low across the country. The retention rate for first-year Elon University Odyssey Scholars is 94 percent, and 100 percent for the Class of 2019. The four-year graduation rate stands at 85 percent for Odyssey Scholars and 78 percent for all Elon students. Nationally, even very high-achieving students from low-income households are far less likely to graduate than students from high-income homes by a wide margin, Rattigan-Rohr says.
The Class of 2017 provides an example. Freeman and Elliott call it “one of our highest achieving classes.” It began with 26 students and 23 remain. Many are going to graduate school. One plans to study law. Another has developed a system for hydroponic farming. “My class is doing some amazing things,” Brown says.
Band of brothers and sisters
They not only learn about the intricacies of collegiate life but begin the process of building relationships—not just with other Odyssey Scholars but with leaders in the program who serve as mentors. It’s a cohort-based process that continues throughout their studies at Elon. They study, talk and socialize together, bound by the experiences they shared before arriving on the Elon campus, where so many students come from far more privileged upbringings.
Jazmine Langley is a sophomore Elon student from Wake Forest, North Carolina, and the first in her family to attend college. She and Khan are Gates Millennium Scholars, a program that covers any need not met by their Odyssey scholarship, as well as any cost associated with pursuing a graduate or doctoral degree in computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science. In considering their options to go to any school they were accepted into, they both felt Elon was the right place for them, in great part because of the Odyssey program. In all, Langley applied to 13 schools but only toured Elon, and the Odyssey program played a big part in that decision. “They are very support-based. At any other school where they have cohorts and bring in students from disadvantaged backgrounds, they usually just give them the financial component. With Odyssey, there’s constant support surrounding every tenet of the college experience,” Langley says. “That definitely made the difference in why I chose Elon.”
During her orientation session, Langley interacted with other students in a series of exercises she calls “emotionally intensive.” Students addressed often personal questions about poverty, homelessness and hunger. They discussed the impact of having more or less privilege than other students in the group. The Odyssey program pays for all expenses for students to attend the orientation, including airfare if necessary. It’s a critical part of forging a cohesiveness that will help sustain them when school officially starts. “They bond with each other and we teach them about using the library, available services, how to shop at the bookstore and save money,” Freeman says. “It’s meant to give them food for thought.”
It doesn’t end there. Freeman’s and Elliott’s third-floor offices in the Mooney Building are almost like a second home for the students. During the short break between Winter Term and spring semester, the directors made sure food was available in Mooney for students who couldn’t make it home for the long weekend when cafeterias on campus were closed. It’s a gathering point. Group events are held throughout the year. “Odyssey always provides the space for us to come together and for us to get closer,” Langley says. “There is so much closeness in the cohort; you just tell these people any and everything.”
A part of Elon life
The same bond that makes Odyssey Scholars become a tightly knit family, turns them into campus leaders, Rattigan-Rohr says. “The program provides this talented group of students with both the professional and peer support needed to navigate the campus community. This has had an impact in their engagement on campus,” she adds.
Beyond structured events that are part of the Odyssey program, students participate in Fellows programs, conduct research and serve as teaching assistants. Rattigan-Rohr says Odyssey scholars bring unique perspectives as they participate in campus leadership roles such as resident assistants, student government and orientation staff. In the community outside Elon, they serve as volunteers for agencies such as the Boys & Girls Club and Allied Churches of Alamance County food pantry and homeless shelter. “They’re engaged in every facet of the campus community working towards strengthening Elon,” Rattigan-Rohr says. “In so doing, they provide undeniable context for challenging and transforming long-held deficit beliefs about people from low-income households.”
First and foremost, Rattigan-Rohr says the Odyssey Scholars program is offering gifted students the chance to improve their lives and, in turn, their families and communities. “Moving forward our scholars have access to a wide array of opportunities thanks to the fact that they leave Elon with a robust résumé showing both a depth and breadth of experience,” she says. “This has opened the door for our alumni in a variety of sectors.”
Brown, whose career goal is to one day become a university professor at Elon, agrees. “Being an Odyssey Scholar gave me the self-assurance that I can do the things I want to do. It taught me that I can do all the things a typical Elon student does and be just as successful or more successful,” he says.
The Odyssey Scholars program at a glance
Odyssey scholarships are endowed by and named for benefactors who believe an Elon education can make a difference in the life of a young person.
At present, there are 14 Odyssey scholarship endowments that combine to support 118 students at Elon University. They are:
- The Anonymous Odyssey Scholarship – undesignated.
- The Marvin and Eva Burke Clapp Scholarship – undesignated.
- The Elon Commitment Scholarship – designated for students from North Carolina.
- The Edward W. Doherty and Joan K. Doherty Scholarship – designated for Hispanic or African-American students.
- The Honorable Thad Eure North Carolina Achievement Scholarship – designated for students from North Carolina.
- The John L. Georgeo Scholarship – undesignated.
- The Lorraine Fogleman Grant and Muir William Grant Music Scholarship – designated for students majoring in music performance or music education.
- The Margaret Ann Hall Endowed Scholarship – designated for women from Virginia.
- The Jessie Thurecht Hook ’46 Scholarship – undesignated.
- The Horizons National Odyssey Scholarship – designated for students who have completed the Horizons National Program.
- The Gail H. LaRose Scholarship – designated for education majors.
- The Mac Mahon Family Scholarship – designated for students from Alamance County, North Carolina, or specific counties in New Jersey.
- The Susan Scholarship – designated for women.
- The Leon V. and Lorraine B. Watson North Carolina Scholarship – designated for students from North Carolina.
For questions or to discuss opportunities to establish an Odyssey scholarship at Elon University, contact 336-278-5851 or visit www.elon.edu/odyssey.