The UW-Odyssey Project offers University of Wisconsin-Madison humanities classes for adult students facing economic barriers to college. The majority of students that participate in the Odyssey Course are from racial and ethnic minority groups (~90%) and are often 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 also say that they read more to their children, feel that they are better parents and advocates for their children in school, have more hope about their own futures, and are more likely to vote and become involved in their communities.
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, who believed the gateway out of disenfranchisement would come through exposure to powerful works of moral philosophy, literature, art history, and American history. Earl Shorris was then featured on Jean Feraca’s Wisconsin Public Radio program, which sparked her desire 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.
Emily Auerbach, Co-Director and founder of the Odyssey Project, also modeled the program after Berea College in Kentucky, a four-year, tuition-free college for low-income students that both her parents 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 resources, advising, and more.
Now in its 18th year, the UW Odyssey Project has helped change the lives of over 500 low-income adults and their families. The program and its leadership have received numerous awards including from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, ATHENA International (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.