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How the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected students in the UW Odyssey Project

Graduation was filled with “pride, community, and love” as people from all around the world gathered to show their support and cheer on the graduating Odyssey class.

Graduation was filled with “pride, community, and love” as people from all around the world gathered to show their support and cheer on the graduating Odyssey class.

Image By: The Odyssey Project

“My kids will be so blessed because of the path Odyssey put me on,” said 2019 Odyssey Project graduate, Candace Howard.

Founded in 2003, the UW Odyssey Project offers UW-Madison humanities classes for adult students facing economic barriers to attending college, such as single parenthood, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, incarceration, depression and domestic abuse, according to their website

The Odyssey Course is a six-credit English literature class where UW-Madison professors introduce adults to great works of literature, philosophy, history and art while helping them improve writing and critical thinking skills. 

Jean Feraca and Emily Auerbach, the project’s co-founders, based their framework on that of the late Earl Shorris, a New York City writer who introduced impoverished adults to philosophical theories.

Auerbach was inspired to start the Odyssey Project by her parents’ personal experience.

“My connection with the Odyssey project is a very personal one,” Auerbach said. “I saw with both my parents that a free school, free access to a liberal arts education, could change the trajectory of an entire family and community.”

The Odyssey program built on Shorris’ work, adding crucial components to the adult education program. Odyssey Junior, one such component, is not just a daycare program — it’s an intentional space where children can begin their educational journey right alongside their parents.

“If we reach one student, then that affects the children and grandchildren and cousins and neighbors,” Auerbach said. “It has a ripple effect. So even if it seems like it’s only a few students who come into Odyssey each year, the reach of the program goes beyond that.”

Auerbach and the entire Odyssey team were blindsided by the COVID-19 pandemic back in March. According to Auerbach, the pandemic disproportionately affected Odyssey students because their students who lived at the poverty level did not necessarily have computers or Wi-Fi access. In the middle of a semester and finals, they were suddenly unable to connect with students.

“Our students don’t have a financial safety net,” Auerbach said. “Many of them were laid off from jobs and don’t have supportive family around them or the financial resources to get the groceries and help they need, or the Wi-Fi access. So, we have shifted a lot of our fundraising to raise money for basic needs.”

Auerbach and her team worried that the feeling of community and support would wane due to the pandemic, given the additional obstacles her students were facing. However, when the courses shifted online in mid-March, they did not lose a single student; all thirty students still graduated virtually.

“Of course there’s a real feeling of loss because we couldn’t share food and balloons and gather hundreds of people in Memorial Union,” Auerbach said. “But what we gained was families [being] able to connect from other states and other countries. There was an intimacy that happened when we saw students in their home with their children around them. There was this feeling that we were all together in our living rooms. We really tried to make the most of it.”

Social justice is key to why the Odyssey Project exists, according to Auerbach. In this country, poverty, incarceration and lack of education all tie into our country’s history of discrimination. Wisconsin is one of the worst states when it comes to racial injustice, according to recent studies.

“The pandemic and the George Floyd murder have highlighted why the Odyssey Project needs to exist,” Auerbach said. “Both of those situations have underscored centuries of racial and economic injustice in this country.”

The Odyssey Project aims to lift people of all ages, races and cultural backgrounds out of poverty. 

“Believe it or don’t believe it, the Odyssey Program will change your whole life,” said 2016 Odyssey Project graduate, Tory Latham. “Odyssey will help you discover your talent. Odyssey will show you that nothing is impossible. 

Learn more about supporting the Odyssey Project here

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