Twenty years ago, Jean Feraca and Emily Auerbach had the idea to develop an outreach program in the humanities for nontraditional students. Their idea went beyond expectations and transformed into the Odyssey Project which has benefited more than 2,000 people of all ages, according to their website.
The Odyssey Project is a free college jumpstart program that works to break the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, according to the project’s website. Material taught in the program includes a variety of literature, theater, philosophy, history, art and other courses that propel students in their education and sense of self-worth, according to Auerbach.
“The Odyssey Project is a program dedicated to the idea that there should be wider access to the riches of our liberal arts education,” said Auerbach, director and creator of the Odyssey Project. “Our program is about overcoming adversity and achieving dreams. We help our students find their voices, gain confidence and envision different futures.”
The project was inspired by the intention of addressing both financial and personal barriers students might be facing, Auerbach said.
“From the educational aspect, students are presented with amazing professors and college content, but more importantly, there’s a support network that is grounded in love,” said Brian Benford, a 2007 Odyssey alum. “I’ve never had another experience where I have felt literal love, support and encouragement from others. We are a family.”
The Odyssey Project works to provide those who grew up dealing with barriers to education with an opportunity to learn and change their futures. The program strives to break the cycle of poverty with the power of education, Auerbach told The Daily Cardinal.
“We try to eliminate the obstacles and barriers that people face,” Benford said. “Some of the obstacles are very daunting — such as domestic violence, food insecurity and housing insecurity — but we try to support people holistically by providing all the wrap-around services.”
The Odyssey Project strives to not only provide nontraditional students with an education but a safe space to advance their quality of life, Auerbach said. People all over the world find themselves stuck in poverty and dealing with racial inequalities; the Odyssey Project works to eliminate and fight back against adversaries, according to Auerbach. Eligible students must be 18 or older, have a high school diploma, be able to read a newspaper in English and have financial need.
The 2022-23 academic year will be the official 20th anniversary of the UW Odyssey Project, celebrating all that has been achieved and plans for future expansion.
“We’re just embarking on strategic planning to help us imagine where we can go in the future,” Auerbach said. “I’m so thrilled to see how this program has grown these past 20 years, and I’m excited to see what the next 20 bring.”
She explained her real pride comes from watching students go beyond the Odyssey Project and continue to succeed in ways they never thought possible.
“What I'm most proud of are the students in this program,” Auerbach said. “It’s so unfair when only certain people get to go to college or are worthy of getting an education. Our courses help students find a sense of family and community.”
Beyond gaining an education, Odyssey students find belonging and a community of peers who inspire and strengthen their determination for education, according to Auerbach. Brian Benford is one of many students whose life was completely changed for the better during his participation in the Odyssey Project.
For the majority of Benford’s adult life, he was a low-income father of five. While he still felt a great deal of pride in the community work he did, Benford said he always felt like something was missing — he didn’t have a college degree. The Odyssey Project gave Benford the opportunity to do something he never thought possible: earn his college degree.
“Like many of the Odyssey alumni, I had to overcome many obstacles related to systemic racism and poverty,” Benford said. “The biggest thing I learned from being a part of the Odyssey Project was that I had a right to reach my full potential in gaining an education as a lifelong learner.”
Benford shared that when he learned about the Odyssey Project, his entire perspective changed.
“My life is very similar to many of the alumni. When I looked in the mirror, I saw the face of poverty and it made my life very difficult,” Benford said. “Right away, Odyssey instilled in me a lifelong right to be a learner. It was my right to be educated. Because of that, the inspiration of my fellow classmates and the alumni networking and support that we get, I was able to earn my degrees.”
Benford went on to get his bachelor’s and master’s in social work at UW, he said. Today, four of five of his children are college graduates, and he’s honored to be an Odyssey graduate who continues to advocate for the project and grow as an individual, he explained.
“It [the Odyssey Project] really has transformed my life,” Benford reflected. “When we talk about the Wisconsin Idea, nothing encapsulates or optimizes the Wisconsin Idea like the Odyssey Project.”
The Wisconsin Idea is the general principle that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Benford said the Odyssey Project brings these ideals to life.
Since the success and progress of the program’s initial course that began in 2003, the Odyssey Project has grown to reach an even wider range of students.
Odyssey Junior supports Odyssey students’ children and grandchildren, Odyssey Senior focuses on people ages 60+ who are still interested in learning and Onward Odyssey focuses on connecting alumni to other UW-Madison courses and providing mentoring and aid as they pursue degrees and dreams throughout the U.S.
Odyssey Beyond Bars offers a jump-start to students who are incarcerated in Wisconsin state prisons. Newly established and launching in the fall, Odyssey Beyond Wars is a program serving veterans challenged by their transition from military to civilian life looking to further their education.
Odyssey invites the Madison community to celebrate this milestone at the Chazen Museum of Art on Thursday, April 20, from 5 to 7 p.m.
Community members can donate to celebrate the Day of the Badger on March 28 and 29 and help the Odyssey Project reach their goal of 120 donors in celebration of their 20 years of educating nontraditional students.