History of the Odyssey Project

The UW-Madison Odyssey Project was inspired by the work of the late Earl Shorris, a revolutionary author and educator who started  the Clemente Course in the Humanities in New York in 1995. Earl Shorris believed that the gateway out of poverty and disenfranchisement would come through exposure to powerful works of moral philosophy, literature, art history, American history, and writing. He chose the name “Clemente” because the first classes were held at the Roberto Clemente Guidance Center in New York, named after baseball star and humanitarian Roberto Clemente. Clemente humanities courses are now offered through Bard College at many locations throughout the United States, and programs have also been started  in other countries. For his work in establishing empowering courses for poor adults, Earl Shorris received the 2000 Presidential Humanities Medal.

After Jean Feraca hosted Earl Shorris on her Wisconsin Public Radio program, she became convinced that a program like it should be established here in Madison. She knew that Emily Auerbach, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had spent the last two decades developing outreach programs in the humanities for nontraditional students. Together they worked to find the funding and institutional support to begin a program in Madison. Rather than offering an official Bard College Clemente course, they decided to arrange for the credit to come directly from the UW-Madison. Funding was secured to begin offering the class in the Fall of 2003. 

Rather than a short-term humanities course, the UW Odyssey Project offers a life-changing educational journey. One other model for the program has been Berea College, a progressive school in Kentucky offering a gateway out of poverty for those like Emily Auerbach's parents who faced adversity and obstacles.

Over the years of the Odyssey Project, the course has grown into a supportive network of students and graduates dedicated to the idea of going forward toward educational goals and giving back to the community that helped give them a jumpstart on their education. 

Unlike a traditional Clemente course, the UW Odyssey Project adds the arts to the curriculum (creative writing, journalism through a student newsletter, theatre, music, etc.), has no age cap, and is directly tied into coursework in English Literature at the UW. Retention rates in the course for the past ten years have been phenomenally high compared to other programs around the country targeting at-risk adults. UW Odyssey students say they are inspired by stories of alumni who have succeeded, are warmed by the family-like nature of the project, and are given practical help when they encounter obstacles that might make them drop out.