Over 100 graduates, current students, supporters, and staff celebrated the University of Wisconsin Odyssey Project’s 10th anniversary Oct. 4. The Chazen Museum provided the setting, UW Catering provided the food, and students and former students provided entertainment that kept the evening lively, inspiring, and totally awesome.
“The UW Odyssey Project is a free, life-changing [six-credit] college humanities program for adults facing adversity as they try to achieve their dreams,” said director Emily Auerbach. Thirty students meet every Wednesday at the Goodman South Madison Branch Library with UW instructors. They study Plato, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and many more; they write essays and poems; they try acting,; and they interact intensely with each other and their professors. “We become a family,” says Auerbach.
The Odyssey Project is family, and it is life-changing. That family extends beyond the classroom and beyond the nine months that each student is in class. As long as they are committed to working hard toward their goals, Odyssey Project graduates continue to receive support in their quest for higher education. And the grads themselves offer support to their newest family members by volunteering in the classroom or otherwise and by participating in events such as this anniversary celebration.
Every year, Odyssey Project students are invited to describe their own personal journeys, and at this event several grads read their moving stories of struggle and triumph. Grad Eugene Smalls (’12) was born in prison. His own choices led him in and out of that institution as a young person, but now he is a prison chaplain. “I am in Odyssey and Odyssey is in me,“ he said. “I went from a drug-addicted, alcoholic, drug-dealing, and gangbanging thug to a hardworking man of God who visits those behind bars.”
Denise Maddox (’04) began life in a Chicago housing project and experienced most of the expected accompanying troubles. The Odyssey Project, she said, “helped me finally transform into a multicolored butterfly. I spread my wings into the air, and now I’m flying. The world might still see me as being poor … but I am rich with knowledge and wisdom … I would never have thought that classes in the humanities would change my life forever!”
Grad and current volunteer Sherri Bester (’08) described her multifaceted life “outside a burst bubble” due to Odyssey and announced that she expects to graduate from the UW next May.
Current student Michelle Whitman read a message from Teneisha Scott (‘04), who could not be present due to a social work emergency on her job. Scott, the single parent of three daughters, is about to complete a master’s degree in social work at Edgewood College. “I am forever grateful for all the help I have received,“ Scott wrote.
Brian Benford (‘07), recently elected chair of the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission, spoke of his journey as a single father. Benford has graduated from UW-Madison and been accepted into the master’s program in the School of Social Work. As he sat in the audience at this event, he said, he saw his youngest daughter, now a UW student herself, walking past. What an incredible moment in his odyssey!
Renee Robinson (‘08) said she believes that every human being “is dealing with some form of darkness, whether by force or choice. We need to walk toward love, passing by hate,” she said. “We need to walk toward courage, passing by fear. We need to walk toward ‘I can,’ passing by those infamous words ‘I can’t.’”
Auerbach at this point observed that she hoped the audience was beginning to understand how many gifts are wasted if we don’t try to help people willing to undertake radical change in themselves and their circumstances.
Odyssey faculty member Jean Feraca led the audience in a call and response rendition of part of Walt Whitman‘s “Song of Myself.” “My participation in Odyssey has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life!” said Feraca, who is admired by multitudes of Wisconsin Public Radio listeners and through her work there became a co-founder, with Auerbach, of the Odyssey Project.
Professor Baron Kelly and Marcia Brown (‘12) presented a scene from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” in which Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to kill King Duncan. After their stirring rendition, Edwina Robinson (‘11) and current student Tosumba Welch gave an equally stirring performance of the same scene wonderfully rewritten by Anthony Ward (‘04) under the title “Macbeth in Chicago.”
Ward, now a Madison police officer, UW student, and musician, told the audience that Odyssey had expanded his world view. “Education empowers you,” he said. “It enables you to take steps you haven’t taken before. I think everybody at some point in their lives needs help.”
Ward referred to his childhood in St. Louis, where his heroes were the “dope boys” on the street corners.
He has written a rap titled “Adaptive,” in which he sings: “Instead of a dope boy, I’ll be a hope boy.”
To conclude the program, Marilyn Sims (’06) led students, grads, and staff in a rousing rendition of a song she’d written, “Knowledge Is the Key.” Her classmate Corey Saffold, now a Madison police officer, composed the music for her lyrics.
The last event of this incredible evening was a showing of the completed portion of a half-hour documentary on the Odyssey Project. Katy Sai, former Channel 3 news anchor, is producing this documentary, which is being prepared for national broadcast on the Big 10 Network. There are many fine quotes in the brief portion we were shown, but these two sum up the spirit of this incredible opportunity called the Odyssey Project:
“How am I preparing a way for someone behind me?” (Anthony Ward, ’04)
“Change is a reality, and we can make it happen.” (Professor Craig Werner, Odyssey faculty.)
For more information about how you can participate in the Odyssey Project as a donor, a volunteer, or a student, call 263-6735 or visit www.odyssey.wisc.edu. Stop by the Goodman South Madison Branch Library on Wednesday evenings to see the class in action!