In this series, we are featuring the Odyssey Project, a University of Wisconsin humanities class for adult students facing economic barriers to college. With its whole family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, this program has been transformational. Albert Watson is an alumnus of Odyssey.
Albert Watson | Madison, WI
When we first moved to Madison we lived in what was then called Somerset Circle in South Madison. It was a fun place to live back then as it was an enclave where everyone knew everyone and looked out for one another.
When I was growing up, my parents both had substance abuse issues, so I didn’t really have a support system. When drugs are in your family, it hinders being productive and having opportunities in life. My dad passed away when he was forty-three, and I was the oldest of four boys, so I became a father figure in my family. When I was twenty-one, my younger brother, who was thirteen at the time, came to live with me and another brother. When he got off the bus, he looked like he wasn’t taking care of himself, so we bought him school clothes and shoes. Originally it was going to be short-term, but my brother and I decided to keep him with us. We attended parent-teacher conferences at his school, and when we learned he was sleeping in class, we established a bedtime for him.
It was very challenging. Being the oldest of four boys, I tried to make sure that my brothers were good. I had my daughter and was in between jobs when I learned about the Odyssey Project. My friend who was a local barber told me about the program. I reached out to Emily, got an interview, and was accepted to the program in 2008. I liked the fact that they provided dinner, free books, and access to the University of Wisconsin. Odyssey was a very good experience and an outlet at the perfect time for me. It gave me a chance to leave all the personal stuff behind, and to be surrounded by people who really cared about me. My peers in the classroom could relate to some of my experiences and circumstances. So, it was cool to go there and escape, to learn, experience, and have fellowship. Odyssey has grown to include more programs, including Odyssey Junior and Odyssey Beyond Bars. This is important to me because it allows children and more adults to have access to the Odyssey Project and learn about literature, philosophy, history, and art.
Food is something that I grew up with and love to do. My dad would always cook breakfast and dinner. He was the cook in our house. Aside from the drug abuse, he was a really good father. He had a sickness, an illness. But he would get us up at 6:00 in the morning on weekends just to eat breakfast. On Sundays, we had dinner at noon when we got home from Sunday school. And then we ate again at 3:30.
I eventually got into competition BBQ, opened a food cart, and worked at a community center where I would cook for the kids. I’ve been working for Dane County at the Juvenile Detention Center for about thirteen years. I started as a Limited Term Employee, and today I am the lead worker here. I really do love what I do and use food as a tool to connect with the young people who are at the detention center.
Once Emily found out about my passion for cooking, she asked me to cook for the Odyssey reunions, which are held every summer. Then I began working with Odyssey Junior and again found myself being the food guy, which helped me to connect with the kids in the program. It was good for the students to have my presence in the classroom because I have experience working with youth and can be a mentor or handle any behavior problems. My daughter has also been involved with Odyssey Junior, so now it’s a family affair. She is fifteen now and doesn’t always have time to spend with me, but if there is an event or opportunity to support me, she shows up.
I think that if there’s anybody out there that wants to go back to college, they should look for a program like Odyssey. I am thankful it is in Madison so I could enroll in this program for non-traditional students. Odyssey provides the resources you need to attend whether you’ve never been to school or if you want to go back to school. The people genuinely care. It’s not a business for them. We’re like one big happy family, which is why I stayed linked to Odyssey.
My next goal is to get into UW-Whitewater. I would love to work my way up to superintendent at the Juvenile Detention Center so I can have a greater effect on the youth who are in the system.
This Odyssey Project story series was produced by Hedi LaMarr Rudd (Odyssey class of 2012) and Jen Rubin (longtime volunteer with Odyssey.) You can visit the Odyssey Project website to learn more about the project.
Albert was featured on Inside Stories podcast with a story he told at the Odyssey writing class. The story centers on the day he saved the life of a teenager in the detention center and he talks about his philosophy of working with juveniles. You can learn more here about the lunch program Albert runs at the Dane County Juvenile detention center.
Photo 1: Albert at a fundraising event for the Odyssey project. Photos 2 and 3: Albert cooking for a community event.
This short documentary about the Odyssey Project captures the spirit of this inspirational program.