On a recent Wednesday night, 30 University of Wisconsin-Madison students gathered to discuss Plato and Gandhi. They were not your typical UW undergrads, and their rich discussion did not occur in a traditional classroom.
The students are participants in the UW Odyssey Project, which provides a two-semester humanities course free of charge for adults who face significant barriers to educational success. Their classroom is at 2312 S. Park St. in the Villager Mall.
Odyssey classes are just one of many inspiring programs taking place at the site of the UW South Madison Partnership. A year after its founding, this welcoming space also hosts Afterschool Expeditions, which provides science activities for families; the Neighborhood Law Clinic, which offers legal services to low-income people; and Building Food Justice Capacity in South Madison, which improves access to healthy food through sustainable urban agriculture.
The idea for a UW South Madison Partnership emerged from an advisory group created by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who hoped to marshal university resources to close the achievement gap in Dane County. The Villager Mall space opened in February 2015, bringing together UW programs that already served Madison’s increasingly diverse community while providing a foundation for new and innovative programs.
Leadership for the new center came from Everett Mitchell, UW-Madison’s director of Community Relations, and Julissa Ventura, a Community-University Exchange fellow at the Morgridge Center for Public Service. They hoped that establishing classroom and meeting space in the Villager Mall would make it easier for one of Madison’s most marginalized communities to learn from and connect with UW-Madison, and vice versa.
Their vision has become a reality, with a year’s worth of open houses, classes, and workshops. The 3,000-square-foot facility encompasses a meeting room that can hold up to 60 people, another that can hold up to 20, and an office area. Its location in the Villager Mall—near South Madison’s schools and community centers—makes it accessible to those who might have trouble attending programs on the UW-Madison campus.
Beginning the journey
I’m pleased to see the university and South Madison working together in productive ways. And I hope the UW South Madison Partnership will encourage a wider range of community members engage with UW-Madison.
The Odyssey Project is just one program making that goal a little easier. In December, Keena Atkinson graduated from the university with a degree in psychology, having overcome homelessness and poverty with an assist from Odyssey.
It’s a long way from sleeping in a car to earning a university degree, but Keena shows you can get there. 2312 S. Park St. is a perfect place to begin the journey.
Jeffrey S. Russell is the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Continuing Studies and vice provost for Lifelong Learning. This article originally appeared in the Capital Times.