“The Odyssey Project helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life.” Education can be a springboard out of poverty, but barriers related to lack of financial stability, childcare, and/or mentoring and support can prevent access to this critical opportunity. Many Odyssey students are overcoming the obstacles of single parenthood, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, incarceration, depression, and domestic abuse. Since 2003, the award-winning Odyssey Project has provided families with free access to higher education, empowering them to overcome these challenges and break a cycle of generational poverty. Four key components help Odyssey students experience success.
1. Odyssey Course
Each year in South Madison, thirty new students embark on a free, two-semester journey with award-winning faculty in English literature, philosophy, American history, and art history. As they engage in lively discussions of Socrates, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and others, they not only gain six UW-Madison credits and improved critical thinking skills, but also a sense of empowerment and stronger voice. One student wrote, “Odyssey has already changed my life and the way I look at my world, my future, my kids, and my challenges. I feel more confident that I can achieve these once-forgotten dreams…and give back to my community.
2. Odyssey Junior
While their parents are in class, 50 children and grandchildren of Odyssey students and alumni receive enrichment and intensive literacy lessons in one of our three Odyssey Junior classrooms: Jumpstart (ages 2.5-5), Explorers (grades 1-5), and Adventurers (grades 6-12). Recognizing that breaking the cycle of generational poverty involves whole families, Odyssey Junior supports children in self-discovery, literacy, and expression through writing, speaking, visual arts, music, movement, and theatre. “I am strong, I have a story, I have a voice.”
3. Onward Odyssey
Graduates of Odyssey have moved from homelessness to bachelor’s and master’s degrees; over three-quarters take additional college courses after Odyssey. Onward Odyssey connects alumni with other UW-Madison courses taught on or off the UW campus while offering a supportive learning community and supplemental financial aid. Odyssey offers academic, career, financial, and personal counseling as well as one-on-one tutoring through the Odyssey Family Learning Center. “Once you graduate from Odyssey, you are part of the Odyssey family for life and can keep going toward your dreams!”
4. Odyssey Beyond Bars
Building on four years of Odyssey enrichment work in Wisconsin prisons, Odyssey Beyond Bars launched in the Fall of 2019 with the first-ever for-credit UW Odyssey composition course at Oakhill Correctional Institution. Every Thursday evening, fifteen men gathered to read essays and create their own. One student wrote, “I was born into cycles of violence, alcoholism, and drugs, and it wasn’t until I came to prison that I learned how to read and write. I fell in love with the worlds that words built.” All fifteen students in this program graduated with three UW credits in English and a newfound sense of hope and self-awareness. Odyssey Beyond Bars plans to expand its reach into more of the state’s prisons.