Pictures of success: A look back at 20 years of the UW Odyssey Project

A collection of images of UW–Madison Odyssey Project students and staff.

It’s been a season of extraordinary celebration for the UW–Madison Odyssey Project.

On April 20, 2023, the program held an anniversary event commemorating 20 years of helping individuals of all ages break the cycle of poverty and find their voice through its groundbreaking educational programs.

On May 3, students of the Odyssey Class of 2023 gathered in the Great Hall of Memorial Union with friends, family, staff, and supporters to celebrate their graduation from the two-semester Odyssey course. In this free program, students who never thought college would be possible develop skills in writing, critical thinking, and confidence through their study of the humanities; each graduate earns six college credits from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This year has also seen planning for the new Odyssey Beyond Wars program, aimed at helping veterans jump-start their education as they transition from military and civilian life, and the launch of Odyssey Senior, an enrichment program for Odyssey students and family members age 60 and above. And Odyssey Junior and Odyssey Beyond Bars continue to expand, serving our youngest learners and those incarcerated in Wisconsin state prisons.

“The Odyssey Project helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life,” one student commented. Odyssey helps students transform their lives through education and has a multigenerational impact. In two decades, more than 2,000 people of all ages have participated in the UW Odyssey Project, reporting life-changing effects for themselves, their families, and their communities.

The 20 photos below offer a snapshot of Odyssey’s remarkable 20-year history — and the people, milestones, and achievements that have made it the award-winning program it is today.

First UW–Madison Odyssey class in 2004
2004 — The very first Odyssey class traveled in September 2003 to campus to get photo IDs and tour the art museum, a tradition the program has continued for two decades.
UW–Madison Odyssey Project class of 2005 at the Harambee Center
2005 — In the program’s second year, Emily (center, in pink) had no coordinator or paid staff as she taught every Wednesday night in South Madison’s Harambee Center.
UW–Madison Odyssey Project student Corey Saffold and two other students in the class of 2006.
2006 — Corey Saffold (standing) says finding his voice as part of the Odyssey Class of ‘06 changed his life, propelling him to a bachelor’s degree, a two-year term on the UW Board of Regents, and acceptance into UW’s Law School.
Five students from UW–Madison Odyssey Project Class of 2007
2007 — Brian Benford (left) says his resilient classmates inspired him to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s in social work from UW, serve as alder for the City of Madison, and work as Odyssey’s success coach.
UW–Madison Odyssey Project students in the Class of 2008
2008 — As a veteran with PTSD, Thomas Gardner (bottom left) treasured the bonds he formed with classmates, developed his experience as a writer, and earned a UW bachelor’s degree at age 60.
UW–Madison Odyssey Project graduate Kegan Carter stands in cap and gown with three youth.
2009 — Kegan Carter, Odyssey Class of ‘04, became the first Odyssey alum to graduate from UW–Madison when she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2009. She went on to earn a UW master’s degree in Afro-American Studies.
UW–Madison Odyssey Project classmates in 2010
2010 — Keena Atkinson (center, red shirt) was homeless and sleeping on the floor of a barbershop when she began Odyssey. She now has a bachelor’s degree from UW–Madison, is a landlord, and owns businesses of her own.
UW–Madison Odyssey Project class of 2011
2011 — Odyssey classes moved to the new Goodman South Madison Library.
UW–Madison Odyssey Project's Wanda Auerbach sits with two students.
2012 — Before her death in November 2012, Wanda Auerbach visited every Odyssey class and attended every graduation, knowing firsthand the challenge of breaking a cycle of generational poverty.
UW–Madison Odyssey Project student James Morgan stands behind two women, seated, at the library.
2013 — James Morgan (standing) continued to feel Odyssey’s love when re-incarcerated for a minor parole violation. He now works as a reentry coach to prevent recidivism and credits Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” for changing his life.
Four UW–Madison Odyssey Project students in the class of 2014
2014 — Milli Lau (far right) said she was so shy about public speaking that she didn’t think she could speak at her graduation, but she spoke eloquently and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from UW-Milwaukee.
Three UW–Madison Odyssey Junior students. A woman stands behind them. All are smiling.
2015 — When the new UW Partnership space opened for Odyssey’s adult learners, the library community room became home to Odyssey Junior, an enrichment program for children ages 10–17 who were too old for Head Start childcare.
A seated woman holds up a tambourine. Two young women and two young men sit next to her. All of the women are wearing headscarves.
2016 — This Odyssey class included a mother, son, and daughter from the same family of Iraqi refugees. The younger siblings were in Odyssey Junior, and the father attended the following year. Several family members graduated from UW.
A woman stands smiling with her husband, young adult son, young son and young daughter. All are smiling for the camera.
2017 — Marisol Gonzalez went on after her graduation from Odyssey to encourage her husband and oldest son to complete the program. Marisol now teaches bilingual classes for Odyssey Junior.
An older man stands with two UW–Madison Odyssey Project students.
2018 — For all but the last few years of Odyssey, when his health declined, Marshall “Coach” Cook (center) delighted Odyssey students with his love of vocabulary. Who knew that the two students pictured here would go on to get married and become community activists?
Men gathered in a classroom in a correctional facility listen to a fellow classmate who talks behind a podium.
2019 — Kevin Mullen taught UW’s first credit-bearing course at Oakhill Correctional Institution, helping men find their voices and a newfound sense of hope. This photo shows the first graduation ceremony for men earning credits in English 100. Odyssey Beyond Bars has now expanded to four prisons. Photo: Chris Barcella, Isthmus
A group of five UW–Madison Odyssey Project staff members in 2020.
2020 — Theater Professor Baron Kelly (blue shirt) has led dramatic workshops for Odyssey students all 20 years of the program, joining its faculty in 2020.
A computer screen shows UW–Madison students in Zoom classroom.
2021 —  Without hugs, live music, and field trips, Odyssey wondered if it could survive the pandemic, but even in Zoom, students could feel the love and find their voices.
Three UW–Madison Odyssey Project students sit writing at tables. They are all wearing masks.
2022 — Masked and alternating between Zoom classes and in-person meetings when possible, the Class of 2022 began finding its way back to normalcy.
A group of UW–Madison Odyssey Seniors stand with staff, smiling.
2023 — In March 2023, Odyssey launched Odyssey Senior for Odyssey alumni and their relatives 60 and older to tell their stories, bringing history to life.


Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.

—Malcolm X


Learn more about the UW Odyssey Project or email for more information.