A tale of two deans

Dead of UW College of Letters and Science Eric Wilcots, and Continuing Studies Dean and Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning Jeffrey Russell

“The Odyssey Program has an impressive track record of transforming lives through higher education,” says UW College of Letters and Science Dean Eric Wilcots. Continuing Studies Dean and Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning Jeffrey Russell concurs, noting “Odyssey is emblematic of education at its best.”

Because Odyssey offers nontraditional students the opportunity to earn 6 UW–Madison college credits in English Literature off campus, it falls under the umbrella of both the College of Letters & Science (L&S) and the Division of Continuing Studies (DCS).

UW Astronomy Professor Eric Wilcots became the first African American dean of the College of Letters & Science in 2020. He understands the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of widening access.

Of Odyssey, he comments, “It is the Wisconsin Idea in action: ensuring that the teaching and scholarship of UW–Madison have an amazing impact on our community. Through their own writing, these students are allowing their voices to be heard. By studying literature, students discover that they are not alone. Suffering, joy, love, humor, tragedy are all universal experiences, and these great works illuminate the human condition.”

Dean Wilcots praises Odyssey students’ resilience and gifts. He says to them, “Odyssey students, you are here because of your fierce desire for learning. Lean into that desire. Ask questions. Spark discussion. Your insights and lived experiences matter. What you think matters. Let yourselves open up to each other and to the world in a new way. Let us learn from you. This expansion of self is the greatest benefit you will take away from the Odyssey classroom.’”

Dean Jeff Russell with former Odyssey studentsUW Engineering Professor Jeffrey Russell has served as the vice provost of lifelong learning and dean of Continuing Studies since 2011. He links Odyssey’s mission to the broader goal of the UW–Madison as a land-grant institution to educate more people traditionally excluded from college campuses. “The Odyssey Project helps nontraditional students overcome poverty, homelessness, and incarceration through education.”

At an Odyssey event, he emotionally called his work encouraging the growth of the Odyssey Project one of his proudest accomplishments on campus. He looks back at Odyssey as it nears its 20th year as a powerful, transformational program “in the community, of the community, and for the community,” with a classroom in South Madison “designed to meet Odyssey’s learners where they are, as they are, and on their terms.”

Dean Jeff Russell clappingAfter attending lively, magical Odyssey classes and graduation ceremonies, Dean Russell comes away impressed with the way the Odyssey faculty team empowers students to actively take ownership of their own learning “rather than a sage on stage, presiding over highly orchestrated instruction. Odyssey students engage in a unique person-centered journey, contributing their lived experiences of vulnerability, triumph, and sadness — human connections that span generations, socioeconomics, race, and more. And out of Odyssey’s empathic learning environment emerge learners with a growing sense of agency, free of judgment, eager for greater self-discovery, and aspiring to fulfilling lives.”

We thank both of our deans for their visionary leadership and support of our mission.