Even a pandemic cannot dampen the spirits of these graduates.
In a Zoom ceremony that included more than 200 people, participants were treated to a cacophony of joy as they celebrated the resilient graduates of the UW–Madison Odyssey Project, an award-winning program offering humanities classes each year for 30 adult students facing economic barriers to college.
Stacked windows on electronic devices showcased hugging, singing, dancing, happy babies and boisterous kids. Families and friends in their kitchens, bedrooms and on their back porches held up congratulatory signs and graduate certificates while red and white balloons floated by and people with wide smiles flashed the Wisconsin “W”.
Messages in the chat window popped up without pause: “Congratulations Odyssey Class of 2020!” and “I miss you all!” and “Don’t make me cry.”
But there were some tears, shed out of gratitude and pride for personal achievement and a beloved community strong enough to withstand major challenges, including COVID-19.
Trials and triumph
As guests arrived at the virtual graduation, a slideshow played, sharing photos of graduates and their families.
Odyssey Director Emily Auerbach opened the ceremony: “This is our 17th year, and we’ve never done something like this before. Though we can’t be in a grand ballroom and share hugs, we can still be together and have people join us from other states and even other countries. We’re all here to celebrate the amazing resilience and courage of the class of 2020 as they earn credits from one of the top universities in the world.”
Auerbach introduced Patrick Sims, deputy vice chancellor for diversity & inclusion, who spoke from his home: “We’re so thrilled to see you all celebrate each other and love each other. I’m feeling it through the monitor. Know that you can accomplish anything that you put your mind to. Believe in yourself and believe in each other. On, Wisconsin, and congratulations, Odyssey class of 2020!”
Each graduate took the electronic stage for a few minutes to share thoughts and poems. They thanked their families, Odyssey staff and each other. They spoke with confidence and from the heart in English, Spanish, French and Ewe. They shared trials and triumphs, and they expressed sadness and frustration about a virus that has upended so many lives.
Remarks from 2020 graduates included:
I’d been procrastinating and things got in the way, but things will always get in the way. It is important for me to make my son and my family proud. This is just the beginning of my success story. -Aerial Bailey
Odyssey is a beautiful, colorful, magical mosaic. Each student is a different color, a different piece that once was lost. Now, each piece can be wonderfully placed on the art board of graduation and can be presented magnificently, once more, on the canvas of the world. -Ronald Burford
This was a beautiful odyssey that I’m glad I took part in. I was afraid I was not cut out for school. It reignited a passion I had for learning that was set a long time ago. I had never read Malcom X, Frederick Douglas or Langston Hughes. Through this program, I was able to learn about the history of my people, and for that I am incredibly grateful. -Corey Dean
When I walked into Odyssey, I was a lost soul looking to find myself. Instead of being a shadow in the background, I’m now a bright shining light. Thanks to myself for starting with a 2-month-old baby and finishing it. Thank you for believing in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. -Kossiwavi Eloh
Thanks to tutors and teachers. Their unconditional support was the best I could have gotten. To my classmates, I thank you all. It has been a great honor to be by your side. Today our ship has landed. The 2020 class has risen up to the task even in the midst of a pandemic. -Eliazar Martinez-Munguia
This class has given us the power to grow. It took my heart filled with shame, guilt and fear and filled it with love, passion and encouragement. It filled my mind with motivation, pride and inspiration. -Krista Mellott
I always wanted to go back to college, I just didn’t know how to take the first step. The Odyssey Project has opened the door for me. Without them giving someone like me a chance, I wouldn’t have stepped out of my comfort zone. -Timothy Mosley
Odyssey opened the door to a whole new world. Thanks to Odyssey I am starting a new life with new dreams. -Carmen Tinajero
Strong and growing community
As with most large video conference meetings, leaders muted everyone while individuals spoke. But after each speech, participants were unmuted, unleashing an eruption of clapping, cheering and dancing.
The community bond was palpable.
To end the ceremony, On, Wisconsin! played through everyone’s speakers while photos of each graduate flashed across the screen. It was impossible to watch and not believe that they would go on to do great things. Many graduates of Odyssey have already gone from homelessness to getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Auerbach ended with a heartfelt call: “Congratulations and stay in touch forever as you are now part of our growing community. I love you all.”
Odyssey provides adults facing economic barriers with a chance to start college for free by taking a six-credit humanities course. Students learn great works of literature, philosophy, history and art while they improve skills in writing and critical thinking. Since 2003, Odyssey has empowered nearly 500 low-income adults to find their voices and get a head start at earning college degrees.
For more information on the Odyssey Project, see the program website or contact Emily Auerbach, firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-262-3733. To donate to the program or become a volunteer, visit the Support Odyssey webpage.