Every year I have the good fortune to both witness and participate in a powerful transformation.
As I walk into a meeting room in the Goodman South Madison Library the first Wednesday night in September, thirty anxious faces look at mine. Some have been told they are not college material. Some have served prison time. Some have started college only to stop as the challenges of single parenthood and poverty blocked their way. Yet when we start discussing the poetry of William Blake, the Declaration of Independence, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I see lives changing course—mine included. I have seen this occur every year since 2003, and it moves me each time.
Now beginning its tenth year, the UW Odyssey Project is a free, life-changing college humanities program for adults near th epoverty level. In an effort to break the cycle of poverty through education, we have helped students move from homelessness to UW–Madison degrees, from incarceration to meaningful work in the community.
The Odyssey Project takes its inspiration in part from the work of the late Earl Shorris, who in 1995 developed the no-cost, college-level Clemente Course in the Humanities for people at the poverty line. Shorris, who won the 2000 Presidential Medal in the Humanities, designed the Clemente Course to help people transcend poverty through exposure to literature, philosophy, history, and art. After my Wisconsin Public Radio colleague (and new Wisconsin Academy Fellow) Jean Feraca had Earl Shorris on her program, she approached me about starting a Clemente Course in Madison.
For personal reasons, the model I chose to use for the Odyssey Project here in Madison differed somewhat from the Clemente Course. Some of my inspiration came from Berea College, a progressive school in Kentucky offering a free, four-year liberal arts education to the poor, especially to those from Appalachia.
My connection to Berea College started before I was even born. My mother, who grew up in the hills of Tennessee in a home without running water, attended Berea after a teacher who saw that she was an avid reader suggested she apply. At times she had a wardrobe consisting only of one skirt and two shirts. She remembers collecting tiny bits of leftover soap to avoid buying a soap bar. Had someone said, “Now you need to purchase some expensive textbooks,” she would have had to go home. Instead, she graduated as valedictorian of her class.
Although Berea is a Christian school, it imported a few “others” for the sake of diversity. My father’s family was poor because they had fled Germany to escape persecution and likely death at the hands of the Nazis. My father’s parents were both lawyers in Berlin, but a foreign law degree meant nothing in America. When he and his family arrived destitute in New York City, they had to start a new life.
My parents met and married at Berea College, went on to Columbia University, and have led productive professional lives. Despite their cultural differences, they have been married 62 years now and both are ardent supporters of the Odyssey Project here in Madison. They know firsthand the power of free access to higher education.
In part because of my parents’ experience, I wanted a life-changing educational journey for our students, not a short-term humanities course. The UW Odyssey Project aims to be just that by combating generational poverty through a two-step process designed to help adults overcome adversity and achieve dreams through higher education. Recognizing a change in self-worth as a crucial step in breaking the cycle of poverty, the Odyssey Project first targets inner poverty through an empowering two-semester evening course in the humanities designed to help students recognize their gifts. Next the Project helps its graduates confront the many obstacles they face in the process of becoming self-reliant, contributing members of society.
For the first part of the journey, Odyssey Project classes meet every Wednesday night from September to May in the Goodman Library in Madison for lively discussions of literature, philosophy, history, and art history. Course work also explores theatre, music, creative writing, and journalism, and students receive intensive help with reading comprehension, critical thinking, and writing. Over the ensuing eight months, students find a voice, gain confidence, and discover a newfound sense of hope and empowerment about their futures. Students who complete the course report that they feel better about themselves, have more hope about their futures, become more active in their communities, read more, are more likely to vote, and improve their abilities as parents, even if they have not yet escaped poverty.
“The world may still see me as poor, but I am rich in knowledge and wisdom,” writes one graduate. The Odyssey Project asserts that this inner transformation offers a critical though insufficient step towards overcoming poverty. Even after they complete the two-semester course, many Odyssey Project students continue to face obstacles and struggle to keep going in college. The second part of our mission is thus to help provide motivated Odyssey Project graduates with mentorship, advising, and practical assistance as they journey toward degrees and better lives for themselves and their families.
Let me share with you the stories of three Odyssey Project students:
Kegan Carter, a single mother, left Chicago in hopes of a better life but became homeless for her first six months in Madison. She had dropped out of community college because of pregnancy and found herself working at menial jobs to try to make ends meet. A voracious reader, she frequently spent time at the South Madison Library. It was there that she discovered a flyer for the Odyssey Project saying, “Begin your journey to college for free.”
Kegan became part of the first Odyssey class, 2003–2004, and speaks of how the program changed her life: “Unlike other classes, Odyssey encourages its students to speak from personal experience about the subject matter. We were taught to use our stories in order to draw parallels to works by William Blake, Plato, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. It took a while to feel comfortable enough to do so, but once it happened, we could not be stopped. That’s what the Odyssey Project is all about: it encourages nontraditional students who would otherwise have been marginalized to find their true voices, and in doing so, these students are more optimistic about returning to college.”
Six years later, Kegan’s graduation from UW–Madison made front-page news in the Wisconsin State Journal. Kegan noted, “I hope my journey from homelessness to graduation from UW–Madison will show everybody else that they can do it, too. The Odyssey Project helped me build the foundation toward the road to success.” This fall Kegan has started graduate school on full fellowship in UW’s Department of Afro-American Studies, hoping eventually to earn a PhD, become a professor, and start an Odyssey-like program of her own.
Anthony Ward also became part of the first Odyssey class. He spoke movingly of growing up in broken homes, his mother addicted to crack cocaine, and of his own troubled record in school despite his potential. Following graduation from the Odyssey Project, Anthony became a Madison Police Officer and gained admission to the UW–Madison on a Returning Adult Student Scholarship. A father of five, Anthony is working on a degree in Community and Nonprofit Leadership with hopes of continuing to give back to the community. He also has released CDs and does musical performances as part of his work as a police officer with at-risk youth.
About the Odyssey Project Anthony says, “Without [it], I would not have realized the insatiable desire I have to learn and to model that example for my family. I learned that we should never stop pursuing education formally or informally. The Odyssey Project classes stimulate the mind and also are run with love and respect. Odyssey Project classes are changing lives for the better right here in our community.”
A refugee from war-torn Sudan in Northern Africa, Josephine Lorya-Ozulamoi found her voice—and improved skills in reading comprehension and writing—in the Odyssey Project Class of 2007–2008. Juggling motherhood, work, and school, Josephine proudly graduated from the UW Madison in May 2012 with a double major in Legal Studies and Sociology. She became a U.S. citizen and now hopes to become an immigration lawyer.
Of her experience, Josephine says that, “If I had not been in the Odyssey Project, I would not be where I am today—earning a bachelor’s degree from UW–Madison. I would have been in a dark place, but instead the Odyssey Project shed a light into my life, and I am on the road to success. My daughter tells all her friends, ‘My mommy is in college,’ and I can’t wait for her to tell her friends, ‘My mommy is a lawyer.’ The Odyssey Project is my passport to a higher education, and I will always cherish its blessing.”
Other Odyssey Project graduates now work as counselors, ministers, teacher aides, and nurses, giving back to the community that helped give them a jumpstart on a college education. Of the over 250 students who have completed our program, over two thirds have taken more college classes; fourteen now have degrees; four have been accepted to graduate school.
Is it enough? No.
We could do more if we had a larger staff and larger budget. But I feel proud of each student that has used the course as a launch pad to a better future. As one of my students put it, “This program allowed me to unwrap my gifts.”
I must say, too, that my own transformation has been equally profound. Over the past ten years of directing the Odyssey Project, I have gained a greater awareness of social injustice—and an increasing anger about the way so many of our talented, creative citizens remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.
In my thirty years as an English professor, my most enlightening discussions of literature have taken place in the Goodman South Madison Library with my Odyssey students, as their experience with prejudice, struggle, and heartbreak gives them a depth and eloquence lacking in traditional students. The literature we read jumps off the page and into their own lives: Ebenezer Scrooge becomes a modern landlord, Macbeth plots gang-style murders in Chicago, and Emily Dickinson speaks to teen mothers striving to transcend depression. Odyssey students have made me more aware of the power of the liberal arts to illuminate the human condition.
As a coda to my Fellows Forum piece, let me reprint a few sentences published six years ago in this publication. In a Humanities Moment essay called “My Odyssey” (Wisconsin People & Ideas, Fall 2006), 2004 Odyssey Project graduate Denise Maddox wrote, "I would never have thought that classes in the humanities would change my life forever. Writing, art history, American history, literature, and philosophy transported me into a new world, where written words came alive and made magic inside my heart. … Rebirth is the perfect word to describe what happened to me. I was like a caterpillar eating everything in sight, yet I was never full until I found focused learning in the Odyssey Project. The knowledge I received helped me finally transform into a multicolored butterfly. I spread my wings into the air to dry, and now I’m flying. The transformation had started, and there was no turning back from this course."
After ten years of leading this program, I could not have said it better!