Odyssey Project student overcomes obstacles to get his bachelor’s degree

Brian Benford with Bucky

Brian Benford describes his educational journey as full of “potholes, roadblocks, angst, and unfulfilled dreams. Starting in the 1970s, I attended many schools only to drop out because of costs, personal battles, or family matters.”

Then, in his 40s, he found the University of Wisconsin–Madison Odyssey Project. The program put him on a path to get his bachelor’s degree and continues to support his pursuit of a master’s.

Odyssey provides adults facing economic barriers with a chance to start college for free by taking a six-credit humanities course. Students learn great works of literature, philosophy, history, and art while they improve skills in writing and critical thinking. Since 2012, Odyssey has empowered more than 400 low-income adults to find their voices and get a head start at earning college degrees.

“Odyssey offered me a chance to be a lifelong learner and gave me a family that continues to provide love, inspiration, and support long after I graduated from the program,” Benford said. “Odyssey goes beyond the classroom. It remains in my heart to inspire me to empower others.”

Never give up

Any one of his educational barriers could have derailed his plans, but Benford ticks off a whole list that he’s overcome: cancer, poverty, raising five children on low-income wages, failed relationships, and the death of loved ones.

Brian Benford in cap and gown with Emily Auerbach
Brian Benford with Odyssey director Emily Auerbach.

“Through it all, Odyssey provided me with support and extreme kindness,” said Benford, who’s worked at the Neighborhood House and other social service agencies as well as served on the Madison city council.

Coming back to school in 2006 as an adult student presented its own unique challenges. Computers weren’t around the last time Benford was in a classroom. He hadn’t written a paper in 30 years. And he was often the oldest student in class—even older than some professors.

“Just trying to keep the balls in the air was often extremely difficult as I tried to balance work, family, and school,” Benford said. “I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I can barely make it up Bascom Hill, and here are all these brilliant 20-year-olds. I’m old enough to be their father!’” But reflecting on people from his Odyssey class helped empower him and keep him focused on his goal of graduating.

In 2011, Benford received the Outstanding Returning Adult Student Award from Continuing Studies to finish his degree, but his graduation was delayed due to Spanish requirements, a cancer diagnosis, and family legal issues.

He still didn’t give up, earning his bachelor’s degree in social work from UW–Madison in the winter of 2018. Benford was recently awarded a full scholarship to pursue a master’s of social work from UW-Madison.

‘They blew the cobwebs off my brain’

Benford points to both his Odyssey instructors and fellow students as being crucial to his success.

Odyssey class, 2007
Brian Benford with his fellow Odyssey students in 2007.

“Show me a student that can honestly say that they ‘love’ all of their instructors and I would say you must be talking to an Odyssey alumnus,” he said. “They blew the cobwebs off my brain and filled us with hope and conviction that we all have a right to reach our full potentials through education.”

To describe his fellow Odyssey students, Benford said, “One word: love. We came together and opened our minds, souls, and hearts in the most authentic learning experience I have ever been blessed to be a part of.”

‘Standing on the launch pad to college’

Benford currently works for Domestic Abuse Intervention Services as a prevention coordinator. With help from his Odyssey family, he will pursue a master’s degree in social work so he can to become a psychotherapist to serve marginalized children, youth, and families who have experienced trauma.

Brian and baby
Brian Benford graduated from UW-Madison with a bachelor’s degree.

“Odyssey not only exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea but has taken it light years into the future as the children of Odyssey parents now have role models to follow,” Benford said. “Standing on the launch pad to college after an almost 40-year break was not so intimidating with Odyssey always in my corner.

“Odyssey validates that all of us, regardless of backgrounds, incomes, or past challenges, should have the right to an education.”

For more information on the Odyssey Project, see the program website or contact director Emily Auerbach, emily.auerbach@wisc.edu, or 608-262-3733. The next Odyssey graduation ceremony–open to the public–is May 8, 2019, at the Memorial Union. To donate to the program or become a volunteer, visit the Support Odyssey webpage.