When prospective students come to Hendrix they are told about all the ways our school is unique. We have a cat colony, personable cafeteria ladies and birthday cakes, a fountain for all your frolicking delights. But when all is said and done the real conversation about our “individuality” as a campus comes down to the Odyssey Program. From an academic (and financial) perspective, Odyssey is the most unique factor about Hendrix. It has propelled the college forward in national rankings and it’s what gives us “the edge.”
What prospective students don’t realize is that inside the process of Odyssey there is heartbreak mixed with the joy. Because there is limited funding, it is almost certain that some projects will not be funded.
“This is the third or fourth Odyssey I have been rejected from…It has definitely discouraged me from applying for Odyssey because I’ve been told ‘No’ so many times. Honestly, it feels like I’m just being led on,” sophomore Noah Adams said.
It is this heartbreak that pushes students to feel distrustful of the program, and more recently, to question if the funding is really there.
Adams, in conjunction with sophomore Max Hancock, applied for Odyssey funding for a politics and international relations project about Cuba. Their two-week trip to Cuba was going to be an exploration of Cuban culture and identity, specifically as it relates to the recent re-engagement of American-Cuban relations.
“We got around five professors who said ‘Yeah, it’s perfect! Couldn’t see how it could be better!’” Adams added.
They applied in the fall and were rejected but encouraged to apply again in the Spring. The Odyssey Committee said there was nothing wrong with the project but that there simply wasn’t enough funding in the fall cycle and there would be more in the Spring. That funding never came for them.
“To go to Cuba would have been an absolute privilege,” Hancock acknowledged.
Both Adams and Hancock agreed that no one is entitled to free money, however they agreed that there is an expectation about Odyssey.
“Odyssey was sold to me as this thing that every student had access to and that you could count on using to go and do really cool, interesting things,” Hancock stated.
“It’s definitely not what they portrayed it to be,” Adams said. “On the brochures they put all these pictures of people around the world, but that’s a very small percentage [of the student body].”
Although students may feel frustrated when they are rejected, it is important to note that across the last three years, 68.6% of all Odyssey proposals have been funded.
With a name like “Odyssey,” the program appears to have been around for a while when in reality is actually very young. Politics professor Dr. Jay Barth was a part of the committee that founded Odyssey about twelve years ago.
“The program as it was created really looks a lot like it does now; there have been some tweaks along the way but it’s very similar…Before Odyssey many students were taking advantage of those opportunities, but Odyssey really universalized access to those opportunities,” Barth said.
And while Odyssey has given many students amazing opportunities, still some feel like it hasn’t been enough. Thomas Alexander and the Chapel Choir were rejected by Odyssey in the February cycle for their trip to England after a year-long process of applications, budgeting and rehearsals.
“I feel like most of us are jaded at this point, and it’s disappointing because most of us are upperclassmen so this is the last summer project we get to have a stab at. And also there are freshmen who this is their first experience with Odyssey and they’re seeing us be jaded and they have every right to be bitter,” Alexander said.
He mentioned that his choir did their best to make the trip as cost efficient as possible, fundraising on their own and choosing the cheapest flights possible.
“It would end up being less than $900 per person [from Odyssey] which, for a trip to England for a week, which is a culmination of a year’s worth of preparation, that’s nothing,” Alexander said.
Many students have questioned Odyssey’s funding in general lately. With all the budget cuts that seem to be going on this year, faith in Odyssey funding has faltered.
“They’ve been telling us ‘This is a hard financial year for Hendrix’ even though they’re building a giant welcome center and they’ve started another campaign fund for more buildings,” Adams mentioned.
It is important to note that the new Welcome Center is being funded by the donation from May Ann Dawkins. However, Adams’ sentiment is being felt by many around campus lately.
“The impression I came away with was that it seemed like they were running out of money…it looks like they are running out of money but trying not to let on,” Hancock added.
Dr. Maureen McClung, who joined the Odyssey Committee this year, disagreed with that notion
“My sense is that funding is about the same and that it hasn’t changed drastically…nothing was said upfront about a lack of funding.”
Dr. Barth clarified that funding levels have not really changed in the past several years.
“In general, funding has been stable for the last few years. There was a point in time when the overall money available to students was about $425,000 a year. A handful of years ago there were some budget cuts that took it down to about $400,000 a year, I think that was around 2015-2016 when that happened, but it has stayed stable since that time,” Dr. Barth said.
Dr. Barth acknowledged that one budget issue for this year’s cycle has been first time AC/UR funding. The sheer size of the senior class, paired with the number of research projects and presentations that occur senior year, dried up all the first time AC/UR funding earlier in the year than normal.
The question of how certain projects get funded over others has been another concern. While the Odyssey Committee aims to be as transparent as possible, each project is handled differently. What is standardized is the process of choosing the projects to get funding. Dr. McClung explained that each member of the committee will look over all the proposals separately, and then they will meet and vote on the projects they deem worthy of funding.
“Some projects will get full ‘Yay’ votes, some projects will get full ‘No’ votes,” McClung said. “Sometimes they’re tied and those are the ones we talk about, asking each other questions, and then we do a re-vote.”
She acknowledged that this process is never easy, since all the projects are creative and interesting in their own ways.
Dr. Barth, being a veteran on the committee, noted that the committee is very concerned about per-student cost, and this becomes a factor when deciding which projects should get funding. Global awareness projects have the highest percentage of failure simply because of the cost it takes to travel (see chart). Dr. Barth also explained that group projects can be challenging.
“The ACs that did not get funded tend to be very expensive projects…if there’s a $20,000 project out of a cycle where only $130,000 is given out, that’s a big percentage overall, and so it’s always a balancing act.”
Other criteria the committee looks at include clear learning goals and a well written proposal, in general.
“There’s this whole ethos of Odyssey – basically promoting engaged learning experiences, reflecting on those experiences. And so we really hold the projects up to what Odyssey represents,” Dr. McClung stated.
And yet another important factor in Odyssey funding is the people on the committee.
“The Committee on Engaged Learning, like any committee, does change personnel year to year and different folks who are members of that committee may bring different perspectives and different values,” Dr. Barth acknowledged.
That being said, some projects may be rejected, in part at least, because they don’t hit a chord with anyone on the committee. It seems that well-written proposals are important, but it takes some luck as well to get Odyssey funding. It’s this very subjectivity that makes Odyssey wonderful and frustrating for Hendrix students.
“It’s disappointing, not so much because they didn’t fund my project but because they weren’t clearer initially about why [they didn’t fund the project],” Hancock acknowledged.
As the Odyssey Program moves forward, there is no doubt that these same issues will arise. While ideally there would be enough funding for everyone’s project, everyone still agrees that there is merit in the process of applying for Odyssey.
“Since graduate school, I have always had to write grants to get my research funded,” Dr McClung said. “Sometimes I wonder what my rate of success would have been like if I had the chance to practice grant writing as an undergraduate at Hendrix. These opportunities to write grants were few and far between before Odyssey.”
Photo Credit: Konrad Witkowski