Students from a UW-Madison program designed to kick-start higher education for economically disadvantaged adults gathered at the Memorial Union Wednesday to celebrate their graduation with a full room of family and friends.
The Odyssey program has helped students from as young as 18 years old to as old as 70 years old to earn six free English literature credits from the university. Students meet once a week to learn writing and critical thinking skills by discussing literature, history, philosophy and art, reading works ranging from Plato’s “Republic” to poetry by Langston Hughes.
Project Director Emily Auerbach started the program to help nontraditional students get a start in college. To be eligible for the Odyssey project, applicants must demonstrate financial need and have a high school diploma.
“It’s part of the Wisconsin Idea of making the university experience accessible to all,” Auerbach said.
Apart from the academic challenges Odyssey students face throughout the year, some also come from tough life circumstances. These include homelessness, mental illness, teen parenthood and drug addiction.
Auerbach said the program creates an “amazing transformation” in its graduates. Two-thirds of Odyssey graduates continue their higher education. Fifteen of the program’s alumni have gone on to earn an undergraduate degree since the first class graduated in 2003.
“Some of them have gone from being homeless to having UW-Madison degrees, or from being incarcerated to working as police officers,” she said.
Josephine Lorya-Ozulamoi, a 2008 Odyssey project graduate, is a refugee from Sudan with two children. Lorya-Ozulamoi will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in legal studies and sociology this May, with hopes of applying to law school to become an immigration lawyer. She said the Odyssey program “played a big part” in that accomplishment.
“It’s a stepping stone,” she said.
But the project did more than jumpstart her education. Lorya-Ozulamoi said it helped pay for her books as well as childcare, making the program feel like more than a class.
She said, “It’s a family.”