“I like to tell my story to students” Alumna’s experience with being mentored helps her pay it forward.
Challenges from parenting, transportation issues, and tight budgets can serve as barriers to college graduation, but none of them is an acceptable excuse to Odessa Aytch (pronounced like the letter H).
In fact, these examples are rites of passage from her journey through poverty, single parenting, work–school balance, and having no car.
Today, Aytch is an Ivy Tech Community College Northeast graduate and a Student Success instructor who, each semester, teaches a few IVYT classes, a college-preparatory requirement for first-year students.“I love teaching these classes,” Aytch says. “I like to tell my story to students and encourage them to continue their educational endeavors despite the challenges they might be facing.”
Aytch’s own story begins in the Bronx, a New York City neighborhood where she grew up sharing a five-bedroom apartment with her mother, sister, aunt, uncles, cousins, and grandparents in James Monroe Houses—a low-income housing project with nearly 2,900 residents.
“I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t know I was poor,” Aytch says. “Everyone I knew lived the same way I did, but I still have great memories.” Those memories include running through jets of water spraying from opened fire hydrants and chasing after the Mr. Softy truck to enjoy an occasional ice cream cone with sprinkles. Some of her memories do not belong in any childhood: Drug addicts smoking crack along the staircases where she lived. Men urinating in the hallways and elevators.
By the time Aytch was 17, her mother wanted to provide a better life for her daughters, so she completed an application and was approved for public housing in Fort Wayne, where her sister already lived. The family relocated, and Aytch transferred to Snider High School and experienced culture shock. “I just didn’t fit in,” she says. “Students would ask me if I was Jamaican or African based on my accent. In the Bronx, people would just mind their own business and befriend you with caution.”
Feeling unwelcomed, Aytch dropped out. She didn’t want to end her education, but she did want out of Snider. Within a year, she earned a GED, becoming the first person in her immediate family to complete a high school credential. “I had something to prove,” Aytch says. “I had always heard I will never amount to anything.”Four weeks later, she enrolled at Ivy Tech Northeast, majoring in office administration and taking one class a semester while working a retail job.
In 2004, Aytch got pregnant and continued her classes until it was time for her son’s birth. When Aytch returned to school, she realized her life had transformed significantly, from single student to single mother and work–study student enrolled full time. On select days, she made as many as nine bus transfers to attend classes, go to work, and address her childcare needs.
Fortunately, Aytch found a mentor in Rula Mourad Koudsia, who had been one of her office administration instructors when she left school to have her son. Thanks to Koudsia, Aytch completed her class. Their teacher–student relationship expanded into a series of email exchanges and impromptu visits to discuss community services referrals, career advice, and life goals.
“As she transitioned from class to class and then approached finishing her associate degree, I said, ‘What’s next?’” says Koudsia, now the Student Success program chair. “I didn’t want to give her the opportunity to say, ‘I’m done.’” Following graduation, Aytch earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Indiana Wesleyan University, which made her eligible to teach IVYT classes. Koudsia hired her immediately.
“There are many students who can relate to her on a number of levels, whether it’s her race, socioeconomic status, role as a single mom, or position as a student just trying to be a better person,” Koudsia says.
Aytch says next on her agenda is the completion of a master’s degree in management later this year and preparation toward a career in higher education as an academic advisor, executive assistant, or program chair.
“No matter what I do, I want to give back and pour into students as people have poured into me,” Aytch says.