This article is part of a series of articles celebrating 20 years of the Odyssey Project. Follow along as we remember where we’ve been and look forward to where we’re going.
Since its launch in 2003, the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s award-winning Odyssey Project has provided hundreds of adults facing economic barriers to college with the opportunity to earn 6 hours of college credit through its free Odyssey Course.
Some Odyssey graduates begin charting a new path right away. Many go on to become leaders in their community or pursue a new career. But for other students, the Odyssey Course is just the beginning of the college experience — and they’re looking for more.
That’s what led Odyssey Project Co-directors Emily Auerbach and Kevin Mullen to develop Onward Odyssey in 2015. Since then, more than 160 students have been involved in the Onward Odyssey program, with many of those students taking multiple courses.
“Our students would often express a real sense of loss of graduating from the two-semester Odyssey Course,” recalls Mullen. “Many students would ask if there were any other courses we were teaching that they could take, so Emily and I developed Onward Odyssey as a response to that need.”
Mullen, an assistant professor with a PhD in English, began by teaching a section of English 100: Introduction to College English to help Odyssey students continue to develop their writing skills while also meeting UW–Madison’s Communication A requirement for undergraduates. Courses in sociology, theater, special education, and African American studies have been offered in the years that have followed.
Below, two Onward Odyssey students share their experiences with the program — and what it’s inspired them to do next.
A desire to learn and to help
“I’ve taken many courses with Onward Odyssey — including English, sociology, theater, and special education. I’d like to get a degree one day. I’m taking courses slowly, but I’m getting there.
“Being a special education teacher or a social worker in the schools is something I’m really interested in. When I took the special education course through Onward Odyssey, I volunteered at a local elementary school for two weeks during the summer. I saw how special education students, especially, struggle to get the help they need during the summer months. And at my son’s school, there’s one social worker for 500 students, and I know there’s a great need for those services. I think that’s something I want to be part of.
“I’ve enjoyed every class I’ve taken with Odyssey. I’m from Africa, and I’ve learned so much about the United States and the cultural aspects that you don’t always learn right away. I love my Odyssey family and hearing the stories of my fellow Odyssey students. And the staff go out of their way to help us and keep us busy. They find something productive for us to do.”
— Sukai Yarbo, Odyssey ‘17
Finding her voice
“I chose to take continuing courses through Onward Odyssey because I want to be a public speaker one day soon. I just had my first public speaking engagement at my son’s middle school. I spoke in front of two seventh-grade and two eighth-grade AVID classes. It felt amazing! I am so grateful.
“The original UW Odyssey course inspired me to keep moving forward, one day at a time. I truly believe that my gift will make way for me. I am walking in my purpose with might and grit.
“I am currently a Metro Transit operator here in Madison. I love to operate large vehicles; I see myself driving an 18-wheeler once I retire from driving the city bus. Travel is life! Nature heals. I am a forever student and aspire to get my PhD in communications. I will be a public speaker known across the nation.”
— Sarah Galinski, Odyssey ‘21
Supporting next steps
Like the original Odyssey Course, Onward Odyssey courses are offered at no cost to students, in a supportive and familiar learning community. Students can work one-on-one with tutors while their children play or work on homework with staff in a nearby room. And with the support of campus partners, students can access academic, career, financial, and personal counseling.
“As they press ahead with their studies, often in addition to work and family responsibilities, these new academic fields, skills, and connections offer a strong network of support as our students continue down our path of higher education,” says Mullen.