Odyssey’s impact

How does Odyssey transform lives?

Many Odyssey students describe their participation in the program as a turning point in their lives. In order to better understand the effect that Odyssey has on its students, the Odyssey Project hired UW-Madison’s LEAD Center—a nationally-recognized higher education research group—to undertake an independent third-party evaluation of Odyssey’s alumni. The evaluation demonstrated that Odyssey students progress from a newfound sense of hope and belonging to the achievement of college degrees and personal goals. These impacts then have a ripple effect on a student’s family, friends, and community.

View the Evaluation Summary


“Odyssey has given me hope. I look forward to a never-ending journey of education to better myself as a man and father.”

Odyssey begins with an acceptance letter and call from Director Emily Auerbach that helps to instill pride and hope even before class starts. Visits from Odyssey alumni who have overcome many obstacles, access to new college advisors, and progress through the curriculum all help bolster students’ hope for the future. The LEAD evaluation found that students’ feelings of hope for the future increased during Odyssey, including for educational achievement, career potential, and their family’s future.

Odyssey alum


“Odyssey turned my life around. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged and had something valuable to bring to the world.”

Odyssey fosters a sense of belonging within the classroom, within UW-Madison, and within the community. Before Odyssey, many students were made to feel that they were not “college material.” Odyssey’s team of faculty, staff, and alumni help each new class of 30 students to feel that they do belong in college.  The LEAD evaluators found that students “formed lasting bonds with classmates and program staff, which created a sense of belonging in the community.”


“Odyssey has given me the courage to be myself and voice my opinions.”

Odyssey alum Corey Saffold was encouraged to write a letter to the editor as an Odyssey student. His letter—on the disproportionate incarceration rate of black men—was published in the Wisconsin State Journal. Corey often speaks about this as a pivotal moment for him, and shares “I realized that this voice to speak, this voice to be bold, and to be confident in the issues that are so near to my heart, it was the voice that I found in the Odyssey Project… All it takes is for one person to say, ‘I see the greatness in you, and I’m going to help pull the greatness out of you, and you are going to be somebody… you are going to change this world.’”

Corey has since received an associate’s degree in Criminal Justice, acts as the safety and security coordinator for a public school district, is working toward his bachelor’s degree, and speaks around the state on behalf of the Wisconsin Humanities Council about his past experiences when he served as a black police officer.

Skills and confidence

“After reading out loud in class, I felt powerful, like I can do anything.”

Odyssey students are more ready for college and career success by strengthening both their skills and confidence. Students reported that Odyssey helped to improve their skills in writing, reading comprehension, speaking, critical thinking, and setting personal goals. Odyssey also strengthens students’ confidence in education, ensuring a better future for themselves and their family, and having a rewarding career and good-paying job.

  • 100% of students believed their writing skills improved.
  • 99% felt more confident to pursue further education.
  • 98% felt more academically prepared for college.

Degrees and dreams

“Like Martin Luther King, I too have a dream: that a girl born in the projects will be able to get an education and a college degree.”

Many students also continue their education outside of degree programs, which include professional certifications, workplace professional development, and programs focused on public speaking, teaching, counseling, nursing, logistics, and web design. On the whole, students consider themselves lifelong learners.

  • Three-quarters of Odyssey students continue enrolling in college coursework.
  • One-quarter of Odyssey students have earned a college degree or professional/technical certificate to date.

Financial stability

“When I was accepted into the Odyssey Project, I was a homeless single mom with no income or sense of purpose. Now I have a UW bachelor’s degree and stability through employment and starting my own businesses rooted in passion and purpose. Upward progress rooted in this love for learning! Thanks to Odyssey and Odyssey Junior, my sons talk about when not if they will go to college.”

Odyssey students are achieving greater financial stability since completing the program. Some graduates have moved from homelessness to UW-Madison degrees, and others have gone from incarceration to meaningful work in the community.

  • After Odyssey, the number of students living in poverty has been nearly cut in half (87% before to 45% after).
  • Odyssey students’ household incomes have risen $18,000 on average (adjusted for inflation).
  • Students reported that Odyssey expanded their awareness of career opportunities which helped their job prospects.
  • Students also reported increased satisfaction with their living, financial, and career situations.

Lifelong Learning

“I want to learn more, read more, see more.”

Odyssey graduates shared that their exposure to a curriculum that included literature, poetry, philosophy, history, and art changed their outlook on the world and their place in it. Learning about the humanities enriched their lives and encouraged them to read new books and authors, see new works of art, and participate in their communities in ways they never knew possible. “What I loved most was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. That was when the light bulb turned on in my life. I have never been the same.” Students spread this love of learning and knowledge with their families and friends—creating a ripple effect.


“The more educated I become, the brighter my future. It’s a great example to my children, and grandchildren alike. My hope for my family and our future is in orbit!”

Whole families have been changed as a result of one student’s journey through the Odyssey Project. Students become role models and advocates for their family, friends, and community.

  • Two-Thirds believe their experience in Odyssey heightened their children’s interests in attending college.
  • 97% said Odyssey impacted their ability to support their child(ren) in school.
  • 98% said that they modeled the importance of education to their family and friends.

One Odyssey alum shared, “My children before Odyssey knew about college but didn’t say things about going one day. Now my children are eager about one-day attending college because they’ve seen it, they know where it is and they know what it looks like. Driving past a University is totally different than actually going inside one, being invited, and knowing people who both study and teach there. I think my children are proud of me and want me to be proud of them.”

Odyssey students are also more civically engaged. 97% felt they were more aware of current events after Odyssey and 89% turned that into action by voting more in local and national elections. On the whole, students also reported increased volunteerism and engagement in social justice issues.

Odyssey Junior creates a pipeline to college

Read to a dog

Odyssey has always offered free childcare, serving mostly younger children. Recognizing that breaking the cycle of generational poverty involves whole families, Odyssey Junior was created in 2015 to help the children and grandchildren of Odyssey students to build their confidence in self-discovery and expression through reading, writing, and speaking.

UW’s Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative (WEC) has been evaluating this new program since 2016. They have found that Odyssey Junior:

  • strengthens participants’ writing ability and their interest reading,
  • supports participants’ ability to express themselves and explore who they are and what they care about, and
  • helps participants to develop their educational goals.

Read WEC’s full Odyssey Junior Evaluation Executive Summary.

What is next for Odyssey?

Odyssey clearly has transformational effects, but much more can be done. With over 600 alumni, Odyssey remains focused on helping students to achieve their dreams and college degrees. Key next steps include:

  • Strengthening campus and community partnerships to help students overcome persistent barriers that stand in the way of their pursuit of college degrees.
  • Sharing and helping to replicate the Odyssey Project model with other colleges and universities in Wisconsin and beyond.
  • Expanding “Onward Odyssey,” including course offerings, mentoring, and counseling for alumni.

About the evaluation

The Odyssey Project contracted with the LEAD Center (Learning, Evaluation, Adaptation, Dissemination) within the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). The survey was distributed to 354 alumni within the Classes of 2004 through 2016. More than 190 alumni completed the survey—a 55% response rate. Review the evaluation to read more about the methodology.

Please contact Colleen Johnson if you have an questions regarding the evaluation.

Colleen Johnson

Position title: Director of Development and Business Engagement, Div. of Continuing Studies

Email: colleen.johnson@wisc.edu

Phone: 608-262-4579

Join our mailing list

Use this form to join the UW Odyssey Project mailing list. Sign up to receive just emails, just print mailings, or both.