UChicago Board of Trustees’ Gift Launches New $200 Million Commitment to Undergraduate Financial Aid and Educational Access

August 16, 2021

Largest gift in support of financial aid at University of Chicago honors President Robert J. Zimmer

The University of Chicago is launching a new $200 million commitment to educational access and financial aid for undergraduate students through a gift and challenge from the University’s Board of Trustees in honor of President Robert J. Zimmer.

Members of the Board have donated $105 million to the Odyssey Scholarship Program, the University’s flagship financial aid initiative that helps ensure need-blind, loan-free education for students regardless of their economic circumstances. Their gifts—the largest in support of financial aid in University history—also will serve as a challenge to raise a total of $200 million with the support of UChicago alumni, parents and friends.

The transformative effort, which will establish the Robert J. Zimmer Odyssey Scholarship Fund, honors Zimmer’s unwavering commitment during his 15-year presidency to expanding undergraduate financial aid and educational access to the University of Chicago. Zimmer launched the Odyssey program in 2007 with a $100 million challenge gift from an anonymous alumnus, whom the University dubbed “Homer.” In 2016, a $50 million gift and challenge from Harriet Heyman, AM’72, and her husband, Sir Michael Moritz, greatly expanded financial support for lower-income students. Numerous others also have generously supported the program since its inception. The new initiative is intended to help sustain the Odyssey program in perpetuity.

The Odyssey program has ensured access to a UChicago education for more than 5,300 students of diverse backgrounds—many of whom are the first in their families to attend college—and provided support and opportunities for mentorship, study abroad and paid internships. It also eliminates loans and academic year work requirements. Since Odyssey’s creation, a number of University initiatives have expanded support and access for College students of all backgrounds, including first-generation and low-income students, Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx students, military veterans, and those from Chicago and from rural areas.

“The Odyssey Scholarship Program has transformed the lives of thousands of students since its launch in 2007,” said Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65, chair of the Board of Trustees, who spearheaded the Trustees’ $105 million effort to honor Zimmer. “Providing access and support, and enabling all students to achieve their exceptional potential has always been central to Bob’s ambitions for the University of Chicago. Nothing could better honor his tenure as president than to reduce economic barriers for students of great intellectual promise to attend one of the world’s top universities. I applaud my fellow Trustees for their leadership in this important endeavor.”

After serving as UChicago president since July 2006, Zimmer will transition to the role of University chancellor this September.

‘Providing access and support, and enabling all students to achieve their exceptional potential has always been central to Bob’s ambitions for the University of Chicago.’’ —Joseph Neubauer, chair of Board of Trustees, on $105 million effort to honor President Robert J. Zimmer

“I am deeply grateful to the Board of Trustees for this meaningful gift and their support of the Odyssey Scholarship Program,” Zimmer said. “Removing obstacles to a rigorous education for students of high ability has been a longstanding commitment of the University of Chicago. Thanks to the generosity of Homer and so many others who have donated to Odyssey since his initial gift and challenge, this program will continue to provide opportunities for our students and their families for generations to come.”

When Homer made his $100 million donation in 2007—at the time, the largest in UChicago history—he intended to support all students’ ability to attend the College. He hoped they could “graduate without the siren of debt distracting them from fulfilling unremunerative dreams.”

Increasing financial support for students in need has greatly helped expand access and diversity at UChicago during Zimmer’s tenure. The incoming Class of 2025 will be the most diverse in the history of the College, with a record number of first-generation (11% of the class), Black/African American (13%) and Hispanic/Latinx students (17%). Currently, about 20 percent of students in the College are Odyssey scholars—this year’s incoming class of 360 Odyssey students is up from 250 a decade ago—drawn to the College for its rigorous education, the distinctive Core curriculum, and new academic opportunities spanning molecular engineering, the arts and data science.

“This gift and continued support of the Odyssey program is profoundly meaningful,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “As a first-generation college student, I know first-hand the power of investing in a young person’s potential. Odyssey scholars are exceptional students who continuously demonstrate that, when assisted in accessing a UChicago education, they achieve greatly academically and in virtually every professional field. The College is immensely grateful to Bob for his extraordinary support, and the Board for substantially furthering the University’s enduring commitment.”

“The Odyssey Scholarship Program has been extremely impactful in helping students of diverse backgrounds experience a transformative UChicago education,” said Paul Alivisatos, incoming president of the University of Chicago. “This gift is a fitting tribute to Bob’s deep commitment to improving college access and affordability, and I’m looking forward to building upon the success of this program.”

In addition to financial support, the program guarantees an internship or research opportunity to Odyssey scholars after their first year in the College. Since the launch of the Odyssey Career Program in 2015, nearly 1,800 students have earned funded internships.

After her first year as an Odyssey scholar, Symphony Fletcher, AB’20, worked in Guatemala as an intern with the non-governmental organization MealFlour, which helps prevent health problems related to protein deficiency.

Currently a student at UChicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, Fletcher is completing two fellowships at NYU and through the Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program, concentrating on trauma recovery and trauma and violence prevention resources for adolescents.

“Attending the University of Chicago through the Odyssey Scholarship Program changed the course of my life,” said Fletcher, who grew up in Houston. “Because of the opportunities to travel and work internationally, as well as the guidance and mentorship I received, I’m well-prepared to pursue a career in public health.”

Over the years, more than 18,000 members of the University community, including faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends, have donated to the Odyssey program—many of them former Odyssey students who have benefited from the program.

For more information on the Odyssey program or to make a donation, visit the Odyssey website.