American Family Insurance funds a counselor to work with Odyssey Project students

With a free humanities class, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Odyssey Project helps low-income adults overcome obstacles to higher education. But sometimes those obstacles become overwhelming. Current Odyssey students might have trouble sticking with the class due to substance abuse, mental health issues, or eviction. Odyssey alumni might have trouble continuing their education due to job loss or immigration issues.

A female counsellor smiling
Emily Vander Velden will counsel Odyssey students and alumni in distress, connecting them with campus and community resources. Above: Students from the class of 2017-18 get their UW-Madison IDs.

To help participants solve such problems, the Odyssey Project has hired a new counselor with seed money from American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation. Emily Vander Velden will draw on her experience as a case manager and psychotherapist to ensure that Odyssey students and alumni have every chance of improving their lives.

“Over the Odyssey Project’s 15-year history, we have helped more than 400 adults pursue their dreams of higher education and meaningful lives,” said director Emily Auerbach. “With the generous support of American Family Insurance, our new counselor will provide additional resources for breaking the generational cycle of poverty.”

Every year since 2003, 30 adults have taken the two-semester Odyssey humanities course, earning six credits in English from UW-Madison. Odyssey provides textbooks, childcare, and a dinner at each Wednesday evening session. In recent years the program has launched Odyssey Junior, a weekly class for students’ children and grandchildren; and Onward Odyssey, which supports alumni on their educational and career paths. A recent survey found that the program’s graduates are more likely to read, vote, go to college, and feel hopeful about the future.

In her new position, Vander Velden will provide even more hope. She will counsel students and alumni in distress, connecting them with campus and community resources. Partnering with an academic counselor at UW-Madison Continuing Studies, she will also help them map out goals.

“We will look at where they want to go and start removing the obstacles in their way,” said Vander Velden. “That will involve addressing such issues as housing, transportation, and employment. I plan to focus on developing a safe and accessible place for Odyssey students to overcome personal challenges, and also to forge strong connections with local social service providers.”

A smiling woman in a graduation gown and cap with her two sons
Keena Atkinson’s is an Odyssey student whose journey could have been easier with a counselor’s assistance.

American Family Insurance invested in the Odyssey Project with the intention of making a difference in the Madison community.

“Anytime a program can help more people gain the knowledge and experiences needed to fully engage with life and with the community, we’re all better as a result,” says Judd Schemmel, American Family’s community investment director. “The Odyssey Project makes a real impact on the lives of students of all ages, meeting them where they are in life. The chance to have a counselor with them in this journey may be the influence that removes a barrier and keeps them going.”

‘I too can make it’

Auerbach points to Keena Atkinson as an example of an Odyssey student whose journey could have been easier with a counselor’s assistance. After graduating from Odyssey in 2010, Atkinson continued her education at Madison College and UW-Madison but still ate at the Salvation Army with her son. Then she had a second child and struggled with childcare costs.

Vander Velden will ensure that more Odyssey students weather such crises as well as Atkinson did. She persevered to earn a degree from UW-Madison and landed a management position with a major national company.

“I’ve been homeless, jobless, and depressed,” Atkinson noted, “yet…being in the Odyssey Project has shown me that I am somebody and I too can make it.”

For more information about the UW Odyssey Project or to donate, see here or contact Emily Auerbach, 608-262-3733, emily.auerbach@wisc.edu.