Homer, Langston Hughes, Shakespeare, Alice Walker, Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, Plato, Charles Dickens, Malcolm X, Francisco Jiménez...These are just some of the writers and poets included in the Course Reader for the UW Odyssey Project, a humanities class for adult students facing economic barriers to college.
Odyssey is an amazing project that has received many, many awards and accolades over the past two decades. For Wisconsin Humanities, our connection to the Odyssey Project goes way back. We are reflecting on this historic journey, one we're proud to have played some small part in, and sharing a series of Love Wisconsin stories. Emily Auerbach (co-founder of Odyssey) and her father, Bob Auerbach are the first featured in the series. Then four alumnus share their stories of how Odyssey and the humanities impacted their lives.
"My mom represents to me this idea that poverty is circumstantial; it is often a lack of opportunity. In creating the program, I was resistant to the idea that the class had to be remedial or practical only. I think that is one of the keys to Odyssey’s success. We assume that if the class is reading a Shakespeare sonnet or Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” everyone who gets the help they need to read it is going to find some way that it resonates with them. Our student body is over 90% students of color, so I felt it was important to have the curriculum reflect that. We combine great works of multicultural literature along with the classics." - Emily Auerbach, Odyssey Founder
It was right around the turn of the new millennium that Jean Feraca, a member of the Wisconsin Humanities board, read an article by Earl Shorris. This article described a project that Shorris founded and called the Clemente Course for the Humanities. Jean was deeply moved by the fundamental ideas of this academic program designed to provide college-level literature and philosophy classes to low-income students, and what Shorris learned through the experience. At the time, Jean was the host and producer of Conversations with Jean Feraca on Wisconsin Public Radio. When she reflected on this turning point in her career recently, she explained, “I was so inspired by the article that I invited Earl to be a guest on my program, and then when he came to Chicago to start a similar program, I followed him around for a weekend and decided this was something I wanted to do in Madison, Wisconsin.”
Jean worked hard for years to gather the momentum and funding. From the beginning, Emily Auerbach was on board. Emily was an English Professor at UW-Madison, also a host of a radio program at WPR, and someone who understood first-hand the power of the humanities, and education, to change lives.
The two women worked together to found the Odyssey Project, with some of its initial funding from grants from Wisconsin Humanities. Emily continues to direct the Odyssey Project and has made it a family affair on all levels. Her father, Bob, was a student at Barrea College, which has also influenced the Odyssey Project. "Berea is 100% no tuition; it is entirely free. We did have to work a minimum of ten hours a week. Berea was the first school in the South that admitted Black students before the Civil War," Bob explained to Love Wisconsin.
Today, over 500 people have been through the Odyssey journey, earning college credits with UW-Madison faculty members who introduce great works of literature, philosophy, history, and art while also building students' skills in writing and critical thinking. For each of the students who embark on this journey, it is transformational. The Odyssey Project now also includes a program for alumni, enrichment for the children of participants, and courses for people behind bars.
We are excited to share these stories today so you can meet some Odyssey students and hear from Emily and Bob Auerbach about why this means so much to her. The stories were produced by Jen Rubin, our Love Wisconsin producer and a volunteer with Odyssey for over six years. To learn more about Jen, who received an award in honor of her dedicated service, in this video.
Read the stories!
- EMILY AND BOB: an inspiring family story about why Odyssey matters
- MARISOL: her parents were custodians at the UW and she always dreamed of being a college student
- FARREN: an immigrant and musician who found stability through the Odyssey Program
- KEENA: an Odyssey grad who went from homelessness to getting her Bachelor's Degree
- ALBERT: a passionate chef who raised his younger brothers and now cooks for Odyssey reunions
- COREY: one of our most popular ShopTalk presenters, Corey shared his experience as a black police officer and an Odyssey graduate. He said, “Odyssey was the single most important decision I have made in my life. Odyssey taught me that I had a voice and then showed me how to use my voice. It’s one thing to receive education; it’s a whole other thing to receive inspiration while receiving an education."