Odyssey alumni reflect on the power of writing

UW Odyssey Project alumni Loche Mothoa sits writing at a table with books

This article is part of a series of articles celebrating 20 years of the award-winning Odyssey Project. Follow along as we remember where we’ve been and look forward to where we’re going.

“You write in order to change the world…. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”  — James Baldwin

Since its inception in 2003, the UW Odyssey Project has sought to give its learners a voice.

Through the free, two-semester course in the humanities, adults facing financial and personal barriers begin to improve their skills in reading, speaking, and writing about great works of literature, philosophy, and art. They not only earn UW–Madison credits — something many were told would be impossible — but also learn to express their truths, challenges, and dreams.

“During the 20 years that I’ve taught Odyssey, I have been blown away by the power of students’ words,” says Odyssey Executive Director Emily Auerbach. “As they see their comments published in our student newsletter, the Oracle, they gain confidence in themselves and their ability to change themselves, their families, and their communities.”

An outside evaluation of the Odyssey Project showed that 100 percent of its students feel themselves to be better writers after completing the two-semester course.

For the past seven years, Onward Odyssey has offered an additional UW course in English composition just for its graduates. Students in Professor Kevin Mullen’s fall 2020 English 100 course could only meet over Zoom at the height of the pandemic, but all found a purpose in their role as writers and the power of using their words to change the world “even by a millimeter.” Here are just a few excerpts from those students on why they write.

Writing for future generations

UW Odyssey Project alum sits holding a young child.
Mary Wells

As a budding genealogist, I like to write for posterity’s sake. Writing my family history has become very important to me. I would love to one day stumble upon a journal that one of my ancestors wrote about their personal life. I would be so excited to hold a copy of a document that they actually wrote…. So, I feel that my immediate family, including my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will hopefully one day be able to read something that I wrote and be excited to read what I wrote.

I write because my self-improvement is imperative, my posterity, my point of view matters, my thoughts and ideas have power, and my writing is a powerful tool.

— Mary Wells, Odyssey ‘07

Writing for justice

UW Odyssey Project alum Jamie Lovely
Jamie Lovely

I write because I have a story to tell, and if I don’t share it, someone else will—unjustly. I am a survivor of domestic violence, a mother, an advocate, artist, writer, activist, and so much more. Expressing myself through writing is essential to my healing journey, connecting with others, and bringing about change on an individual, familial, community, and institutional level. Writing allows me to be on intimate terms with myself — to listen, reflect, mirror, empathize, and think critically…. I used to write for peace — now it’s for justice.

Articulating my experiences is not simply a pastime. It is a crucial step to solicit change and accountability…. I write to remember, to never give up, and to keep it from happening again — to me or anyone else.

— Jamie Lovely, Odyssey ‘14

Writing for self-expression

UW Odyssey Project alum Barbara Rodgers
Barbara Rodgers

I like to write because writing is my voice. It captures the moment and opens the imagination. Writing is the only sound that makes no noise. I can be the creator of anything because ears and minds are drawn to it like the power of words through speech. Like the word freedom. When I write, I feel free because my words become visionary like Martin Luther King’s speech.

What motivates me to put the pen to the paper is the power behind my words. Being able to express myself through poetry is my Picasso, meaning that the reader gets to understand me through my work. The best part about writing is being satisfied with the outcome I just created.

— Barbara Rodgers, Odyssey ‘18

Writing for self and others

UW Odyssey Project alum Candace Howard
Candace Howard

Becoming a teenager, I started to go through life-changing things, and it was hard to express myself, so I would write a poem about what I was going through. Poems about me missing my hometown, Chicago, IL …. Poems about my newly found male friend who soon after became the father of my children. Poems about my incarceration as a juvenile, and poems about me conceiving children so young.

Today I still write poems…. But today I write because I feel the knowledge I’ve earned over the years can help change people’s lives. I write because I feel I can help the world become a better place. I write because I have my own story I want to share with the world, and I feel it will help not only others but help me. I write because it helps me feel free.

— Candace Howard, Odyssey ‘19

Writing for growth

UW Odyssey Project alum Ron Buford
Ron Buford

I don’t write for money, or at least I haven’t. I don’t write to hurt or harm anyone. Usually, it’s to uplift someone or, mainly, my writing is centered around me. So, I would guess that I write as a selfish means to help rebuild my self-esteem in the areas where I am lacking. And, as hard as that was to admit, I think this is one of the many reasons I write, unconsciously.

I write to get out what I am thinking or feeling; to have a record, to show as a sense of accomplishment; to discover who I am, was, or what I want to be; to see if, or how, I’ve grown; to help rebuild my self-esteem in the areas where I am lacking; and, as a passionate pursuit to help ease the mind of the other people that might share my experiences, in hopes it might assist them to overcome their own experience, situation, or circumstance.

— Ron Buford, Odyssey ‘20

Learn more about the UW Odyssey Project or email odysseyproject@dcs.wisc.edu for more information.

Photo above: Onward Odyssey student Loché Motha (Odyssey ’20) works on her writing in Professor Kevin Mullen’s fall 2020 English 100 course.