Isthmus: UW Odyssey Project fights adversity with humanities

“We’re doing everything we can,” the nurse said.

These words frustrated Emily Auerbach, director of UW-Madison’s Odyssey Project. She knew they were meant to reassure her, but they didn’t ring true. A friend lay in the hospital following a suicide attempt. Her room was devoid of color, filled with machines. It didn’t show that life is worth living.

Avé Thorpe and Emily Auerbach with children in classroom
Avé Thorpe (left) explores the humanities with her kids and Odyssey director Emily Auerbach (center).

Auerbach shared this anecdote with Elisa Wiseman for the Isthmus cover story “A life worth living: The Odyssey Project proves the humanities can change destinies.” She also shares it with each class of the Odyssey Project, a Continuing Studies program that helps low-income adults earn college degrees. Auerbach asks her students what they’d give a friend struggling to survive. Music, movies, pictures, and stories, they say. These things bring comfort, laughter, hope. They encourage us to keep going.

“You probably wouldn’t bring an algebra textbook, but you’re glad that the doctor knows the math and that the engineers who made the machines know what they’re doing,” Auerbach explained in the Isthmus piece. “But when you look at that stuff, it doesn’t feel like living. That’s the importance of the humanities.”

Big challenges, big opportunities

Auerbach and her staff do everything they can to help their students escape poverty and address problems such as domestic violence and depression. Each year, Odyssey offers a two-semester humanities class for 30 adults, providing textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner. Students earn six English credits from UW-Madison, gaining critical thinking skills and a sense of empowerment in the process.

Avé Thorpe, the student at the heart of the Isthmus story, has struggled with homelessness while raising four kids. Now she’s chasing her dream of becoming a nurse or daycare owner. But that’s just the beginning. After finding her voice in Odyssey classes, she wants to be a writer.

“I want to tell about the story that I have,” she told Isthmus.

Thorpe will share a short piece about her journey during the Odyssey graduation ceremony at Union South’s Varsity Hall on May 3.

Thorpe is one of many success stories. Over the past 14 years, Odyssey has helped nearly 400 low-income adults overcome adversity and achieve goals through higher education. Two-thirds of the alumni have continued their education and dozens have completed two-year, four-year, or graduate degrees. A related program, Odyssey Junior, offers enrichment and a taste of college for Odyssey students’ children and grandchildren.

“Students between ages 2 and 18 gain a sense of pride, and whole families become more hopeful about their futures,” Auerbach says of Odyssey Junior.

2016-17 Odessey class graduates
The 2016-17 Odyssey class graduates May 3 at Union South’s Varsity Hall.

In addition to attracting media coverage, Odyssey has caught the attention of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), winning a prestigious matching grant. If the program raises $100,000 over the next year, the NEH will match it with $100,000. With the threat of federal funding cuts looming, the NEH has urged Odyssey staff to raise the money and earn the match as quickly as possible.

“Just in the last two weeks, over a third of the money we need has come in from donors,” Auerbach says, “and we’re hoping more members of our community will help us reach our goal by the end of March.”

To donate to Odyssey, see here, or mail a check to Friends of the Odyssey Project, Attn: Odyssey Junior Match, 21 N. Park St., Room 7468, Madison, WI 53715.

For more information about Odyssey or Odyssey Junior, contact Auerbach at 608-262-3733 or emily.auerbach@wisc.edu.