Odyssey Project gives hope to new group of students, children

October 27th 2015
Arts & Humanities
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Katia is trying to raise her young daughter "into a smart, beautiful woman." The task is daunting, in part because the girl's father is imprisoned for 30 years.

But things are looking up for both mother and child. Katia was accepted into the Odyssey Project, offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Division of Continuing Studies. In addition, her daughter is part of a new Odyssey Junior program.

"I felt it was a new beginning and my chance to just start over," she says.

Now in its 13th year, the Odyssey Project offers a challenging two-semester college humanities class for adults dealing with single parenthood, homelessness, addiction, incarceration, depression, domestic abuse and other barriers to their education. It provides 30 low-income adult students with free tuition, textbooks, child care and a weekly dinner.

The Odyssey Project serves as a model for helping students turn their lives around and find a career path. So far this year, they have read the revolutionary poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, discussed a poignant story of a migrant worker family by Francisco Jimenez, and visited the Chazen Museum of Art. They'll earn six credits in English from UW-Madison, and gain critical thinking skills and a sense of empowerment.

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"In just a few weeks, Odyssey students describe themselves as feeling new hope about their futures," says director Emily Auerbach, a professor of English in the College of Letters & Science. "They find great meaning in the works we read for their own lives of struggle and survival."

This year, the Odyssey Project added a new initiative called Odyssey Junior for the children and grandchildren of adult participants. The young learners engage in writing and art exercises that allow the generations to share an educational experience.

"This is our first year of having programming going on simultaneously in four Madison locations each Wednesday night, reaching 30 adults and 55 children," says Auerbach. "On Sept. 9, the first day of class, the children went home with a new reference book, just as the adults were going home with new dictionaries and textbooks."

When asked to finish a sentence beginning with Maya Angelou's command to "try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud," Katia's three-year-old daughter Harmony responded, "I can be a rainbow in someone's cloud when I smile and make my mom happy." Her comment was included in Odyssey Junior Oracle, a collection of writing and photos from the Odyssey Junior kids.

Nissa Uriostegui, an alum of the project, is hopeful that the expanded youth component will be a transformative experience for her three children.

"I enrolled my children into Odyssey Junior with the hopes that they would find their voice like I found in Odyssey," says Uriostegui. "They love this program and count down the days till Wednesday!"

Those interested in supporting the Odyssey Project can attend Night of the Living Humanities, a pre-Halloween party at the University Club, 803 State St., on Oct. 29. Staff, students, and board members will dress as Socrates, Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and others who have played a role in the Odyssey humanities course. Attendees have the option of coming as a writer, literary character, philosopher, musician or historical figure, with prizes awarded for best costume.

"The event will celebrate the life-changing power of the humanities — the way reading, for instance, can broaden our sense of who we are," says Auerbach. "At our benefit, we will be demonstrating literally the way Frida Kahlo can 'come alive' as a Mexican student channels her story of survival, or how Martin Luther King can speak to us in 2015."

Night of the Living Humanities takes place on Thursday, Oct. 29, from 5-7 p.m. The minimum per-person donation is $25, $15 of which is tax deductible. There will be complimentary appetizers and arts and crafts by Odyssey students for sale, with proceeds benefiting the Odyssey Project. Pay at the door, or register in advance online.

Current student Jayvonna looks forward to a transformative experience in the Odyssey Project's Class of 2015-16. As she puts it: "Education is power."

Story by Dean Robbins, Division of Continuing Studies