Milestones: Odyssey Project celebrates tenth year

By Emily Madsen

A student who was born in prison is now a prison chaplain. A student who immigrated to the United States is now on track to become an immigration lawyer. Students who struggled in school are now teacher’s aides, or even teachers themselves.

The Odyssey Project, now celebrating its tenth year at UW-Madison, is the source of many such stories of transformation. As one alum, Denise Maddox ‘04 writes, “The world might still see me as being poor, with little money and material wealth, but I am rich with knowledge and wisdom.” The Program, directed by UW English and Continuing Studies Professor (and UW English department alum) Emily Auerbach, aims to assist adults like Denise who are seeking a way out of poverty by giving them access to a free two-semester intensive course in the humanities. By the end of the 2012-13 school year, the program will have served three hundred students, and its impact resonates in the lives around those three hundred students as well.

Odyssey Article Picture - Graduate with Abraham Lincoln statue

The Program began in 2003, when WPR radio host Jean Feraca interviewed Earl Shorris, the founder of a no-cost, college-level program called the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which enrolled those at the poverty line. The goal of Shorris’s program was to improve students’ lives through exposure to philosophy, history, and art. Feraca, inspired by Shorris’s work, approached WPR colleague Emily Auerbach about establishing a Clemente Course through UW-Madison.

Auerbach’s own life had been influenced by a similar situation, as her parents had met while both were studying at Berea College, a progressive Kentucky school that offered four years of free liberal arts education to the poor. Both went on to higher education and successful careers. Auerbach took inspiration from this model and adapted the goals of the Clemente Course to fit the Madison context, crafting a course with two phases that was designed to change lives as well as expose students to literature. The first part of the course is the weekly Odyssey Project classes, which engage students in discussions of literature, drama, philosophy, and art history. This part is also designed to encourage students to experiment with writing in a variety of genres, including creative writing and journalism, as a means of finding their voices and gaining a sense of empowerment. The second part of the course is the continuing support that the program provides to graduates as they pursue their futures, which comes in the form of mentorship, advising, and practical assistance such as helping students meet childcare needs or buying books for classes. The program sees its successes in these students’ lives. Over two-thirds of Odyssey Project’s graduates go on to more college classes, many find their calling in a chosen career such as nursing, social work, counseling, or police work, others encourage family members to enroll, and many report positive effects on their families overall: graduates are better able to advocate for grandchildren or children in their schools, they can impart a better sense of opportunities to their family, and they feel they read more to their children and provide better role models in their pursuit of knowledge.

The program is a proud answer to the question that often faces English majors: “Why study literature?” Through the program, literature has literally changed lives, and the transformational stories of the Odyssey students demonstrate how books can become the impetus for change. Literature is not limited to the elite, and Auerbach also remarks that she herself sees the literature differently after hearing her students’ perspectives on it. Whether it is a retelling of Macbeth set in inner-city Chicago, a reading of Emily Dickinson that draws parallels with life in prison, or empathy with the plight of the child chimney-sweep William Blake describes, the students learn to value their own viewpoints and experiences, and explore the rich intersections between literature and their lives.

The Odyssey Program has been supported throughout its tenure by a number of groups, including Auerbach’s book group, local churches, the AAUW, and the Business Forum. Over nine hundred private individuals, businesses, and organizations have given the program financial support through grants and private donations. If you would like to support the important work of the Odyssey Program, there are two different accounts to potentially contribute to: the UW Foundation-Odyssey Project Fund #12543729, which helps defray the cost of tuition, books, and other educational expenses; and the Odyssey Project Inc., which helps pay for basic living expenses and special needs that students may encounter. More information about the program, including how to apply, donate, or volunteer can be found on the program website, In addition, a documentary about the Odyssey Project aired on the Big Ten Network on December 2, 2012, and is available for viewing through a link on the program’s home page.