The UW–Madison Odyssey Project’s celebration of its 2018-19 class was no ordinary commencement ceremony. Music was played, speeches were delivered, and completion certificates were awarded, but they were merely the icing on a cake that will sustain the program’s graduates for years to come. The event, held May 8 at the university’s Memorial Union, was at times a rousing sermon, an inspiring social-justice rally, a dramatic poetry reading, and an emotional family reunion.
English professor Emily Auerbach, the program’s director and cofounder, praised the loving, supportive community this year’s class has cultivated. She also highlighted this group’s perseverance in her opening remarks.
“Many obstacles threatened to get in the way this year: blizzards, car accidents, hospitalization, homelessness, surgeries, deportation scares, deaths of loved ones. But as Langston Hughes entitled one of his poems, we’re ‘still here,’ and we’re glad you’re here with us,” she said, referencing one of the thinkers the group studies in its two-semester humanities class inspired by her parents’ alma mater, Berea College.
Each year, the Odyssey Project offers this free class to 30 adults living near the poverty line. The program provides textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner, plus opportunities to work with esteemed UW–Madison faculty such as Craig Werner, Gene Phillips, and Marshall Cook. Odyssey students earn six college credits while developing critical thinking skills and a sense of empowerment.
About three-quarters of Odyssey graduates go on to take more college courses thanks to initiatives such as Onward Odyssey, which connects them with learning opportunities and sources of financial support. Many earn degrees and do meaningful work in the community. The children and grandchildren of many of these students participate in Odyssey Junior, which offers academic enrichment activities to youth ages 2 to 18. A new program called Odyssey Beyond Bars will offer a credit-bearing writing course to inmates at the nearby Oakhill Correctional Institution this fall. Kevin Mullen, Odyssey’s associate director, will teach this course, which builds upon prison-based enrichment courses taught by Odyssey cofounder Jean Feraca, a retired Wisconsin Public Radio host.
A family of supportive scholars
Fabu, Madison’s poet laureate from 2008 to 2011, delivered the evening’s commencement address, a poem about the students, their strengths and struggles, and the many lessons they have learned in the program.
“From many countries and many cities Odyssey students open their souls to each other in order to encourage, laugh, cry, and become one family together,” she remarked.
Some of the evening’s most moving words came from the students themselves. Each 2018-19 graduate recited a short piece composed for class. Featuring multiple languages and points of view, these works helped the audience glimpse into the students’ lives and educational journeys.
In a color-themed poem, Muhammad Abdullah noted that “violet is the color of royalty, not monarchical royalty but scholarly royalty, [for] Odyssey produces scholars.”
In an autobiographical poem inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Kayasia Blake shared how she is the daughter of “a mother who beat the statistics [and] a father who didn’t get the chance.” Though she has been supported by WIC, food stamps, and two jobs, she has been held back by “maybe laters and broken promises.”
Queeneice Creamer charmed the crowd with “Poems Are Not My Thang.”
“I love poetry, but it has no love for me,” she stated, ironically, in her original verse.
The audience begged to differ, cheering her on with shouts and applause.
Big dreams, bigger accomplishments
Ricardo Marroquin Santos meditated upon what it means to dream, linking this concept to DACA (Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals) and the path to citizenship proposed in the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Ac“Living in fear of deportation, I am a DREAMER of a dream deferred, the one who experienced the warm welcome of the American people despite the limitation of DACA’s regulations,” he remarked. “I am the undocumented alien who is the protector and real keeper of the American Dream.”
Indeed, each of these students is a dreamer, imagining brighter futures for themselves, their families, and communities across the country. With Odyssey, they gain the hope and support to make these dreams a reality.
For more information about the Odyssey Project, or to apply, see the program’s application webpage or contact Emily Auerbach, 608-262-3733, firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate to the program, visit its support page.
Photos by Hedi LaMarr Photography.