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Odyssey student triumphs over the odds to get his master’s degree as an older adult

Brian Benford standing at an Odyssey graduation and smiling in the distance

Brian Benford describes his educational journey as full of “potholes, roadblocks, angst and unfulfilled dreams. Starting in the 1970s, I attended many schools only to drop out because of costs, personal battles or family matters.”

In his 40s, he found the University of Wisconsin–Madison Odyssey Project. The program put him on a path to get two higher degrees: first his bachelors in 2018. This May, at age 60, Benford receives a master’s degree from the UW–Madison Master of Social Work Program.

With this latest degree, Benford plans to become a licensed mental health professional, providing therapy for underserved populations.

Perseverance and support

Brian Benford graduated from the Odyssey Project in 2007 and got his master’s degree this year from UW-Madison.

Any one of his barriers could have derailed his plans, but Benford ticks off a whole list he’s overcome: cancer, poverty, raising five children on low-income wages, failed relationships and the death of loved ones.

Coming back to school in 2006 as an adult student also presented unique challenges. Computers weren’t around the last time Benford was in a classroom. He hadn’t written a paper in 30 years. And he was often the oldest student in class—even older than some professors.

“Just trying to keep the balls in the air was often extremely difficult as I tried to balance work, family and school,” Benford said. “I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I can barely make it up Bascom Hill, and here are all these brilliant 20-year-olds. I’m old enough to be their father!’”

But reflecting on people from his Odyssey class—along with constant support from his children—helped keep him focused on his goal of graduating.

In 2011, Benford received the Outstanding Returning Adult Student Award from Continuing Studies to finish his bachelor’s degree, but his graduation was delayed due to a cancer diagnosis and family issues. He didn’t give up, earning his bachelor’s in social work from UW–Madison in the winter of 2018.

He went on to get his master’s and was recognized for his efforts.

“I was honored to be chosen for the Sandra and Ethel Rosenbaum Scholarship through the UW–Madison School of Social Work,” he says. “Without this generous gift, the reality of finishing my master’s degree was unthinkable.”

Back with his Odyssey family

Benford points to Odyssey instructors and fellow students as being crucial to his success. Now, he works for Odyssey as a success coach.

“My job is to team up and partner with current and past Odyssey students to overcome obstacles and challenges that they may be facing as barriers to higher education,” he says. “This might include advocating and assisting in housing security, seeking employment, mental and physical health services and referring to other community-based resources. I am part cheerleader, dad and whatever role needed to provide help to people connected with Odyssey to reach their full potential.”

Benford considers Odyssey part of his family. Here he is with Odyssey co-directors Emily Auerbach and Kevin Mullen.

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.

Benford’s path to his master’s degree wasn’t straight, but it was full of dogged determination, hard work and lots of support. His advice for other adult students: “Believe that learning is a lifelong endeavor and claim your right to be a lifelong learner.”

For more information on the Odyssey Project, see the program website or contact Emily Auerbach, emily.auerbach@wisc.edu or 608-262-3733. To donate to the program or become a volunteer, visit the Support Odyssey webpage.