Twenty-seven smiling faces beamed from the stage in Union South’s Varsity Hall. Friends, family members, and well-wishers shouted encouragement from the audience. A piano and conga played “Sunny.” Yes, the Odyssey Project’s May 4 graduation ceremony emphasized positive feelings, despite the students’ often painful journey to this spot.

Steven Jones’ poem 'Homeless in Wisconsin' communicated a street person’s desperation with heartbreakingly vivid details. (Above: Arkeshia Sallay and Jayvonna Flemming)

Steven Jones’ poem ‘Homeless in Wisconsin’ communicated a street person’s desperation with heartbreakingly vivid details. (Above: Arkeshia Sallay and Jayvonna Flemming; all photographs by Dick Baker)

The Odyssey Project is the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s college humanities class for adults with serious challenges. They receive free tuition, textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner, along with earning six credits in English. Lest you doubt the significance of their achievement, director Emily Auerbach began last Wednesday’s ceremony with a catalog of obstacles facing the class of 2016: “accidents, diseases, breakdowns, breakups, pregnancies, hospitalizations, layoffs, homelessness, emergency surgeries, incarceration, crises, and deaths of loved ones.”

Odyssey alumnus Anthony Ward led the crowd in a call-and-response rap that nailed the evening’s spirit.

Odyssey alumnus Anthony Ward led the crowd in a call-and-response rap that nailed the evening’s spirit.

Auerbach referenced the title of a Langston Hughes poem—“Still Here”—as a tribute to the students’ resiliency. And as each one came to the podium to read autobiographical writings from class, you could only marvel at their eloquence in the face of adversity.

‘It’s only the beginning for me’

Auerbach and her fellow instructors expose the Odyssey students to William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King, and other canonical writers, and their work has clearly made an impression. Jayvonna Flemming compared her Odyssey experience to jumping on a trampoline, imagining herself with “arms held high while I’m reaching for the stars.” Shaimaa Ahmed used another artful metaphor to describe her role in her family, which traveled a difficult path from Iraq to Madison:

Shaimaa Ahmed 's poem used an artful metaphor to describe her role in her family, which traveled a difficult path from Iraq to Madison.

Shaimaa Ahmed ‘s poem used an artful metaphor to describe her role in her family, which traveled a difficult path from Iraq to Madison.

I am a tent that holds her kids.

I protect them from cold,

Protect them from the risks of life.

I travel to wherever they take me.

Steven Jones’ “Homeless in Wisconsin” communicated a street person’s desperation with heartbreakingly vivid details:

Snow starts to fall, and my socks get wet.

My pants rustle in the wind.

I stumble to an abandoned factory.

I’ll find a better place tomorrow.

Some students read in both English and their native language, from Spanish to Arabic to Hmong. Some performed with stunning dramatic force, while others bravely carried on through tears. Some acknowledged their mistakes, some worked through their anger, and some claimed victory after a life of struggle.

The graduation ceremony emphasized positive feelings, despite the students’ often painful journey to this spot.

The graduation ceremony emphasized positive feelings, despite the students’ often painful journey to this spot.

In the latter group was Arkeshia Sallay, a self-described “little girl lost, told over and over again what I couldn’t do and what I couldn’t be.” No more, though. Sallay’s poem “Remember Me” left the audience with a powerful image of renewal: “With a smile on my face, love in my heart, peace in my space, it’s only the beginning for me.”

‘Each one of you is a masterpiece’

Jeffrey S. Russell, the dean of UW-Madison Continuing Studies and vice provost for Lifelong Learning, spoke for many in the audience by expressing awe at the Odyssey class of 2016.

Jeffrey S. Russell, dean of Continuing Studies, promised that UW-Madison would support the graduates as they continue their education.

Jeffrey S. Russell, dean of Continuing Studies, promised that UW-Madison would support the graduates as they continue their education.

“Each one of you is a masterpiece,” Russell said. “Each one of you is an individual work of art, with unique talents and unique things to contribute to others. This community is a beautiful place.”

Odyssey director Emily Auerbach and her father, Robert, who appropriately performed "Sunny" on piano.

Odyssey director Emily Auerbach and her father, Robert, who appropriately performed “Sunny” on piano.

Russell promised that UW-Madison would support the graduates as they continue their education. Over the Odyssey Project’s 13-year history, many alumni have gone on to earn degrees and find jobs they never would have dreamed possible. Auerbach thanked the volunteers and donors who’ve helped make these dreams come true, including the Madison Public Library and the Evjue and Brittingham Foundations. Anyone wishing to contribute to the program can learn more here.

Photographs of Odyssey’s 300-plus alumni filled Varsity Hall, and many alums showed up to celebrate the current class. One of them, Anthony Ward, is now a teacher in Odyssey Junior, a related UW program for the children and grandchildren of Odyssey students. Surrounded by adults and kids from the extended Odyssey family, Ward led the crowd in a call-and-response rap that nailed the evening’s spirit: “I know that up is the only way to go!”