Odyssey Project graduates, supporters celebrate determination in a challenging year

Images of all of the students in the UW–Madison Odyssey Project Class of 2021

With his young daughter beaming next to him on the couch, Burnett Reed used his time during the UW–Madison Odyssey Project graduation ceremony to read from his essay on love:

Burnett Reed UW–Madison Odyssey Project Class of 2021
Burnett Reed

I love to be a father. Some people have the great honor to have a father growing up, let alone two parents in the home. I wasn’t a part of that lucky bunch. Fast-forward 27 years later, I get the honor of being called a father. I love being something I never had….  I love to be a father.

Reed and his daughter weren’t the only ones smiling during the virtual graduation ceremony, held over Zoom on Wednesday, May 5. Around 400 participants from around the world — including family members, friends, donors, volunteers, staff and community members — found plenty to celebrate as they honored the 35 graduates of Odyssey’s Class of 2021.

Celebrating its 18th graduating class this year, the award-winning UW Odyssey Project offers humanities classes each year to adult students facing economic barriers to college. Over the course of two semesters, students in the program study literature, writing, history, philosophy, art history, music and drama, earning 6 credits in English from UW–Madison. Since 2003, Odyssey has empowered more than 500 low-income adults to find their voices and get a head start at earning college degrees.

Due to the pandemic, the Class of 2021 is the first in the program’s history to complete the curriculum entirely online.

In her opening comments, Odyssey cofounder and codirector Emily Auerbach praised this year’s graduates for their resilience in the face of the year’s challenging circumstances.

Emily Auerbach
Odyssey Project director Emily Auerbach: ‘The program has demonstrated the power of the arts and humanities to transform lives.’

“These students have persevered,” she said, “even though nine contracted COVID themselves, many lost loved ones to the disease, others endured domestic abuse, gun violence, depression, financial hardship and tremendous stress from parenting or grandparenting during a pandemic”

Codirector Kevin Mullen likewise lauded graduates “for the way they encouraged each other, expressed themselves so honestly and openly and worked so diligently on their writing this year” and acknowledged that “sharing pieces helped us come together during this pandemic when we couldn’t meet in person.”

A way with words

The power of writing was on full display as each of the students read a poem, essay or other writing completed while in the program. Inspired by writers like Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King Jr. and others, students wrote of personal tragedy and strength, family resilience and community power in overcoming the challenges of the past year.

Works read by from 2021 graduates included:

Kwan Hogan UW–Madison Odyssey Project Class of 2021
Kwan Hogan

I am Kwan:
I am not my father, I am who my mother raised me to be.
I am Kwan:
I am a kind king who can laugh his way out of any situation.
I am Kwan:
I am a descendant of my Nigerian brothers and sisters,
though I call Madison and Pennsylvania my home.
I am Kwan:
I am a Christian with love in his heart,
in a world that’s losing its love
by the day.
I am Kwan: I am a jack-of-all-trades, my skills and talents know no ends
and there is nothing I can’t do when I put my mind to it.
I am Kwan! (Kwan Hogan)

Sarina Benford
Sarina Benford

I have a dream the country opens its eyes
I have a dream we expose all the lies
And the cover-ups of all the crap that’s inside
Of this horrible world and the ones with the power
Are just getting hushed up with threats and they cower
but they get their send-offs for their final hour.
I have a dream that children and women one day get help
And the trafficking rings get the cards they are dealt
Then my kids and my neighbors can go to the park
And play basketball and walk after dark. … (Sarina Benford)

Tawania Alston, UW–Madison Odyssey Project Class of 2021
Tawania Alston

I am a bamboo tree,
Easily bent but not broken.
Would you ever think that I am stronger than steel?
Could you see that I have been through many tropical storms?
That those storms have made me want to give up and pray to be taken away?
But I somehow still have the strength to get up after…
I got over the pain of failed life choices and “hurricanes” and reminded myself,
You may bend, but you will NOT break.
The wind may knock you over and make it hard to get up,
But remember you’re resilient.
You ARE a bamboo tree. (Tawania Alston)

Faces of the future

After the students read their pieces, organizers shared a short video featuring photos of the students of Odyssey Junior. Each year, Odyssey Junior offers literacy and enrichment activities to the children and grandchildren of students in the Odyssey course. Though these activities were also virtual this year, more than 60 children participated in Odyssey Junior this year.

Auerbach noted that many graduates of Odyssey Junior have gone on to graduate from UW–Madison and are now applying to law schools and other graduate programs. “Odyssey Junior children are going to change the future,” she added.

To conclude the ceremony, On, Wisconsin! played through everyone’s speakers while photos of each graduate flashed across the screen, accompanied by an enthusiastic round of applause and cheering and from families and individuals who had tuned in to watch.

“I say to the Class of 2021,” Auerbach concluded, “congratulations, stay in touch forever as part of our powerful and growing Odyssey community and keep going forward towards your dreams.”

For more information on the Odyssey Project, see the program website or contact Emily Auerbach, emily.auerbach@wisc.edu or 608-262-3733. To donate to the program or become a volunteer, visit the Support Odyssey webpage.