Odyssey alum wins ATHENA Young Professional Award

Collage of photos of Josephine alone, with her family, and of her ATHENA award

Josephine Lorya, alumna of Odyssey’s Class of 2008, received the 2021 ATHENA Young Professional Award last month from The Business Forum Madison in recognition of her work as a Dane County social worker, multicultural performer, and organizer of donations for her native Sudan. Odyssey encouraged Josephine on her journey to both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UW, and her face graced the spring 2021 cover of On Wisconsin magazine. Josephine’s four children continue to participate in Odyssey Junior, finding their gifts and voices while receiving arts-based enrichment, books, puzzles, and a sense of belonging.

At a ceremony at the Madison Club, Josephine Lorya gasped in surprise, then cried, as NBC15’s Leigh Mills announced her as the 2021 winner of the ATHENA Young Professional Award. This national award honors emerging women leaders striving towards personal and professional excellence while giving back to their community in meaningful ways.

The nomination of Josephine opened with paragraphs highlighting her incredible journey:

A refugee from war-torn South Sudan, Josephine Lorya has demonstrated extraordinary courage, resilience, leadership, and service to others through her determination to earn her U.S. citizenship, pursue her higher education, raise four children, work to bring positive change both in the U.S. and in Africa, and pursue a career in social work at Dane County Human Services, allowing her to give back by helping families suffering from adversity as she once did.

A smiling Josephine standing near a lake at sunsetJosephine is a survivor of tremendous trauma. As a child, she endured separation from her mother when her mother, on the ground, was struck by an exploding jet during the war in Sudan, leaving all other passengers and others on the ground dead; Josephine’s mother was hospitalized for several years. The family then escaped to Kenya, having to adapt to a new culture, and emigrated to the U.S., leaving Josephine feeling torn between two continents. Josephine sought higher education and a better life for herself and her children. Her gateway came through the UW Odyssey Project (she calls it her “passport to a new future”). She became a U.S. citizen, attended Madison College, and earned both her bachelor’s degree and master of social work (MSW) degree from UW–Madison despite raising four children, including one with special needs.

As a social worker with Dane County Human Services, Josephine uses her professional skills and personal empathy to empower hundreds of families facing crises and needing assistance, and she has demonstrated initiative and creativity in designing ways to assist Sudan. Josephine stands as a reminder that someone who loses everything, including their homeland, endures tremendous trauma, and faces racial discrimination can — through hard work, leadership, initiative, and determination — become a success story inspiring others through their professionalism, humanitarianism, and service to others.

In her award acceptance speech, Josephine spoke of girls back in Sudan with big dreams but limited opportunities.

Josephine and her son ZionJosephine calls Odyssey multigenerational in its impact and has continued to involve her four children in Odyssey Junior. Even during the pandemic, Odyssey Junior has kept children ranging from newborns to 17-year-olds excited about learning and surrounded with warmth and encouragement. Will you contribute to holiday gift bags for the more than 60 children in our program?

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