As a young boy in Chicago, Derrick Allen was terrified of gangs. In high school, however, he joined a gang himself, getting caught up in the drugs and violence. His life on the street finally led to the dead end of homelessness.

UW Odyssey Project, Derrick Allen, Night of the Living Humanities

Derrick Allen transforms into bandleader Duke Ellington at Night of the Living Humanities.

But against all odds, Allen found a way out with help from the Odyssey Project. After moving to Madison, he discovered the University of Wisconsin–Madison program for low-income adults facing barriers to higher education. In 2017-18, Allen took Odyssey’s six-credit humanities course and encountered a whole new world in works by Plato, Langston Hughes, and other great writers. He dedicated himself to improving his own writing and earning a bachelor’s degree in social work.

“Odyssey has transformed me,” Allen says. “The course tied everything we read into my personal life, and it was eye-opening.”

Every year since 2003, 30 adults have taken the free, two-semester Odyssey Project course to overcome their struggles with poverty, addiction, incarceration, and other adversity. Odyssey provides textbooks, child enrichment, and a weekly dinner, making it possible for participants to study classic works of literature and achieve their dreams through higher education.

Odyssey director Emily Auerbach says Allen’s experience is typical of the program’s 400-plus alumni.

“Derrick was someone who didn’t even know his own gifts, but who found his voice and recognized his own power in the course,” Auerbach says. “When people explore works of art, they see themselves and the world in new ways, and their lives change.”

The humanities come off the page

Derrick Allen has continued his educational journey with the Odyssey Project, taking courses through a related program called Onward Odyssey. And on Oct. 25, he will celebrate his transformative experience by physically transforming into bandleader Duke Ellington—at least for a couple hours at Night of the Living Humanities.

The annual benefit is a pre-Halloween costume party at the University Club, 803 State St., from 5-7 p.m. Staff, students, and board members will dress as literary, historical, and artistic figures who play a role in the Odyssey humanities course. The event also features readings of original work by Odyssey alumni. Attendees (who also have the option of dressing up) can reserve tickets at odyssey.wisc.edu/nolh or by contacting Auerbach. The minimum per-person donation is $35.

“Night of the Living Humanities celebrates the fact that the humanities can come off the page and into your life,” Auerbach says. “You feel like you’re a fugitive slave when reading Frederick Douglass or a riverboat pilot when reading Mark Twain. At this event, attendees can literally become these people for an evening.”

Pictured above: Joyce Johnson, Alice Ramirez, and Galeca McCain of the 2018-19 Odyssey Project class.