Keena Atkinson was homeless, and her child’s father was serving a 10-year prison term. She and her 4-year-old son were living out of her car and occasionally sleeping at a friend’s business after hours.

Keena Atkinson: 'I wanted to do something with my life, go back to school, and help my child and myself get out of poverty.'

Keena Atkinson: ‘I wanted to do something with my life, go back to school, and help my child and myself get out of poverty.’

Atkinson’s luck started to turn around when that friend encouraged her to apply for the Odyssey Project, the University of Wisconsin-Madison program that had helped him start a college education. Odyssey offers a two-semester humanities class for adults dealing with addiction, incarceration, depression, and other barriers to their education. It provides them with free tuition, textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner.

Atkinson enrolled in the Odyssey Project in 2010, determined to improve her situation. “I wanted to do something with my life, go back to school, and help my child and myself get out of poverty,” she says.

And that’s exactly what happened. Atkinson’s experience in Odyssey led her to Madison College and then to UW-Madison, where she will graduate at Winter Commencement. She earned a degree in psychology and will soon start an executive leadership position with a major national company.

New ways of thinking

Atkinson will graduate with a degree in psychology at UW-Madison's Winter Commencement.

Atkinson will graduate with a degree in psychology at UW-Madison’s Winter Commencement.

Atkinson credits the Odyssey Project with changing her life.

“I got out of it everything I was looking for and then some. I learned new ways of thinking, developed good study skills, and found the support I needed.”

Support came from Odyssey Project director Emily Auerbach as well as from fellow Odyssey students. Atkinson drew strength from the community that forms around the program.

“We’re always there to encourage one another, whether going for a new job, continuing our education, or dealing with things in our families,” she says. “People from the Odyssey Project have helped me overcome challenges throughout my educational journey.”

Atkinson can’t wait until December 20, when she’ll be the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

“I look forward to ending the cycle of poverty in my family,” she says. “I have learned so much about life, commitment, dedication, and parenting. I have so much to share with my community and still so much to learn. I am excited for what the future holds.”

For more information about the Odyssey Project, contact director Emily Auerbach, 608-262-3733, emily.auerbach@wisc.edu.