“A single mother who was homeless now attends graduate school on full fellowship. A man whose mother was a crack cocaine addict now works as a police officer talking to at-risk children about the dangers of drugs. A woman who fled an abusive father as a child now uses her Master’s Degree to help women at domestic abuse shelters. All are Odyssey graduates.”
- Emily Auerbach, founder of The Odyssey Project.
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On a recent cold evening, a group of Simpson Street Free Press reporters gathered at the Goodman South Madison Library. We were in pursuit of a very hot story. Our entire newspaper staff believes in the lifelong enjoyment of learning. And that’s why we headed to the library. We were there to witness the Odyssey Project in action.
The UW-Odyssey Project is a University of Wisconsin-Madison program that is unlike any other. It has been running since 2003. The project aims to help adult college students advance in life, avoid poverty, and learn.
Odyssey provides access to higher education. And over the years, many interesting people have used the opportunities Odyssey provides as a launch pad. Although held at Goodman South Madison Public Library, the class counts as a college course, providing graduates with six UW-Madison credits.
Students are taught critical thinking, persuasive writing, and communication skills. They also discuss the writings of Socrates, Langston Hughes, Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson, among others.
It was the vision of Emily Auerbach that got all this started. Auerbach is an English professor at UW-Madison and founder of the UW-Odyssey Project. She was recognized as a Winter Lady Godiva Honoree in 2012 for the impact she has on her community. Years ago Auerbach’s parents, who were living in poverty, went to a free college called the Berea College. Her father went on to become a professor and her mother became a medical librarian. Her parents’ success inspired Emily Auerbach to start this transformative program.
We had the chance to interview Jasmine Banks, an Odyssey student. Banks discovered the Odyssey Program by reading an article about it in Umoja
magazine. Banks recognized some students in the graduating class picture that appeared with the article and asked around for more information.
“I needed a jumpstart to begin pursuing a college degree. I liked the idea of it only being 30 students, the challenge of reading such a wide variety of authors and materials, as well as it being held off campus,” said Banks.
Banks said she enjoys all aspects of the course. But she told us one of her favorite parts of the program is the fellowship that comes from the meal students share together before the class. Banks also said she enjoys listening to her classmates’ ideas and opinions and seeing how their points of views contrast.
“It has made me know that I have the capability to succeed, and success to me at this point in my life is getting a college degree,” said Banks.
The class we observed included a presentation by a retired UW-Madison professor, Marshall Cook, who also volunteers at Simpson Street Free Press
. His lesson is called “Marshall’s Mindbender.” He teaches the students vocabulary and philosophies. Marshall teaches Odyssey students a new word every week.
During our visit, Marshall’s word of the week was pachyderm—which means any of the thick-skinned, nonruminant ungulates, such as the elephant, hippopotamus, and rhinoceros, or a person who is not sensitive to criticism or ridicule.
Marshall cleverly disguises the meaning of the weekly word within the lesson title for the day. For example, the title of the lesson we attended was “The Elephantine Epitaph.” Marshall also gives out quizzes on the vocabulary words from previous weeks. We thought this was an extremely effective and fun way to learn. It’s an example of what makes Odyssey so successful. To us, it seemed obvious that the students enjoyed taking on material that was challenging. The atmosphere in the Odyssey classroom was very impressive.
UW literature professor Craig Werner led another portion of the class. He teaches the students political history. In the class we observed, he taught the students about Progressive Era reforms and how these principles connect with people today.
Debates arose over some of the topics that were discussed. For example, many of the students believed that politicians are allowing corporations to control peoples’ decisions. To us this demonstrated how much the class helps students develop opinions and communicate their thoughts. We witnessed students who feel comfortable inside a rigorous classroom setting. Instructors and students discussed their opinions openly.
The Odyssey Program provides something else that is very important in education at any level. It gives confidence to students like Derrick McCann, to continue their education as college students, speak up, and build self-esteem. When we talked to McCann, he spoke about feeling loved and inspired to change while in the program. All the students we interviewed said they plan to continue their education.
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We left the South Branch Library about three hours after we arrived. When we walked outside it was even colder than before—and now it was raining too. But we didn’t care; we knew we had a hot story.
As we headed back to the office, we excitedly discussed our experience in the class. All of us agreed that people getting a second chance at their studies is an amazing opportunity. We were glad we had the chance to witness for ourselves the uplifting learning environment Emily Auerbach has created. It was very motivating to see students anxious to further their education. We left feeling proud that such a cool thing takes place right in our neighborhood.