Emily Auerbach wins ATHENA Award for devotion to Odyssey Project students

Emily Auerbach with Athena award

On March 13, Emily Auerbach won an ATHENA Award for her work with the Odyssey Project, the University of Wisconsin-Madison program for adults facing barriers to higher education. But Auerbach insisted that the recognition went to the wrong person.

“I feel that the award belongs to my Odyssey students, over 400 incredibly gifted, eloquent people who have gone through this program, overcoming adversity to go forward in school,” she told NBC15. “They’re the reason I’m getting this award.”

Indeed, several Odyssey alumni joined Auerbach at the awards ceremony at the Madison Concourse Hotel, sponsored by the Business Forum. The ATHENA Award honors people who have devoted themselves to improving the Madison community and helping women realize their leadership potential. Auerbach was chosen as the winner from among 11 nominees.

Emily Auerbach and Odyssey Project ALumni
Emily Auerbach (center) with Odyssey Project alumni at the ATHENA Award ceremony. Left to right: Shaimaa Ahmed, Ngina Ali, Char Braxton, Umaima Mohammed Saed.

“I’m moved to have an award that comes from the Business Forum because for years they have given scholarships to students in the Odyssey Project, and those scholarships help women go on to school,” Auerbach told In Business magazine. “I’m so grateful for that.”

Gifts and ambitions

Now in its 15th year, the Odyssey Project offers a two-semester course for 30 adults facing challenges like poverty, homelessness, and incarceration. Odyssey provides textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner, making it possible for participants to study works by Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other great writers. Graduates earn six credits in English from UW-Madison, and many go on to pursue additional college coursework or job training.

Emily Auerbach giving speech after winning Athena Award
Auerbach: ‘I feel that the award belongs to my Odyssey students, over 400 incredibly gifted, eloquent people who have gone through this program, overcoming adversity to go forward in school.’ (Photo by Meghan Will; also photo at top)

In recent years, Auerbach has created related programs to help Odyssey Project students and their families, as well as other community members struggling to continue their education. Odyssey Junior is geared toward students’ children and grandchildren, allowing whole families to share a similar curriculum. Onward Odyssey supports alumni as they continue their schooling, and Odyssey Behind Bars introduces Odyssey course materials to Wisconsin prisons.

Auerbach partly based the Odyssey program on the model of Kentucky’s Berea College. Her parents—Wanda, who grew up in Appalachia without running water, and Robert, who escaped Nazi persecution in Germany—met at Berea while taking advantage of the free four-year education the college provided to poor students.

“My mother arrived at college with one skirt and two shirts and would have had to go home if she had to buy a textbook,” she told In Business. “For my father, starting over as an immigrant, it was extremely important to have a school that gave him a chance. That’s why I’m so committed to making sure that people here in Madison—people who have gifts and ambitions and motivations and dreams, but no money—have a chance to go to school.”

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