Illinois Humanities' Odyssey Project Graduate, 2014
One childhood summer, Jo McEntee, recipient of the EJ Hendricks Outstanding Alumna Award, read 40 books. For her reading was a way to explore the world. Years later as a graduate of Odyssey, it became a way of fostering community as well.
After completing Odyssey in 2014, Jo enrolled in the year-long “bridge course” held at Illinois Humanities’ downtown offices. Before long, she and her classmates were taking their learning outside the classroom. “A few others and I were so invested that we created our own program called ‘Beyond the Bridge,’” she explained. “We would meet by the river and write.”
That writing led Jo to develop a weekly writing workshop at the Stony Island Arts Bank, which she still runs each Friday. In 2017 she published her first book, a collection of short stories titled Passages. She learned so much about the publishing process that she was soon helping others lay out and publish their books. So far she’s aided three people in seeing their books into the world, and has a backlog of others to work on.
“I am always thinking of ways to challenge myself,” Jo said. “I’m not content to say, ‘I did X, and that’s it.’ I ask, ‘Now what do I do?’”
The answer is lots! Jo is a docent at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, guiding youth groups through the galleries, then working as a teaching artist at an elementary school. She co-facilitates the Long Overdue Book Group with fellow alum Anna Mangahas, a program in which Odyssey graduates oversee reading clubs at four sites in Chicago.
“For me, Odyssey didn’t stop once I didn’t have those weekly conversations in class,” she said. “The odyssey is ongoing. Now I have those conversations with other people.”
She also turned her attention to the needs of her community. In her Northside Chicago ward, Jo serves on a leadership committee. She even traveled to Arizona last year to attend a conference on participatory budgeting, the process by which ward residents vote on locally-funded projects. “It gives people a voice in how the money is spent and insight into how the government works,” she said.
Next year, Jo will return to the Odyssey classroom as a paid teaching assistant. She’ll help students navigate their coursework and develop essays, and act as mentor and sounding board. She looks forward to sharing the experience that has been so galvanizing for her with a new set of students.
“Odyssey keeps you inspired,” she said. “It keeps you thinking about how you can have an impact and make a difference, not to fix people—because people aren’t broken—but to help them get where they want to be.”