The UW-Odyssey Project offers University of Wisconsin-Madison humanities classes for adult students facing economic barriers to college. The majority of students who participate in the UW-Odyssey Project are from racial and ethnic minority groups (typically over 90%). Many are overcoming the obstacles of single parenthood, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, incarceration, depression, and domestic abuse. Odyssey students report transformative outcomes, and some have even moved from homelessness to bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Students report that they read more themselves and to their children, feel that they are better parents and advocates for their children in school, have more hope about their own futures, are more likely to vote and become involved in their communities, and have continued their educations and sought job training.
The UW Odyssey Project offers three core programs:
The UW Odyssey Project, founded in 2003, was primarily inspired by two programs: the Clemente Course and Berea College. The Clemente Course in the Humanities was established in 1995 by the late author and educator Earl Shorris. 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.
After Jean Feraca hosted Earl Shorris on her Wisconsin Public Radio program, she decided she wanted to start a similar program in Madison. She reached out to Emily Auerbach, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who 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.
Professor Auerbach was also inspired by Berea College in Kentucky, a four-year, tuition-free college for low-income students that her parents both attended. The assistance her parents received through four years of college inspired Dr. Auerbach to support Odyssey Project students all the way to their college graduation day by offering additional courses, financial support, advising, and more.
Now entering its 15th year, the UW Odyssey Project has helped change the lives of over 400 low-income adults and their families. When a student goes from homelessness to a bachelor’s or even master’s degree—as several of our students have—the transformation is remarkable. The program and its leadership have received numerous awards including from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the ATHENA award (athenainternational.org), the Association for Continuing Higher Education, and numerous Madison-area awards.
Friends of the UW Odyssey Project, Inc. was formed in 2009 to provide wrap-around support for Odyssey Project students. This support is crucial to our students’ success as it helps them overcome obstacles that would otherwise prevent them from continuing in college. For example, Friends of Odyssey helps with emergency rent, childcare, food, transportation, and other basic living expenses for students in crisis to supplement other available community resources. Friends of Odyssey also provides funding for Odyssey Junior.
Activities and Impacts
- More than 400 students have completed Odyssey. Three quarters go on to enroll in further higher education and approximately one-quarter hold a degree or professional certificate.
- Participants report that they read more to their children, feel they are better parents, have more hope for the future, are more likely to vote and become involved in their communities, and have made plans to continue their education or seek job training.
- Since 2015, Odyssey has expanded its reach to the next generation through Odyssey Junior, a program of enrichment and intensive help with literacy for children and grandchildren of Odyssey students.
- Onward Odyssey offers support for students after graduation through additional courses, mentoring, and counseling.