“Once you figure out who you are and what is special about you, that stays with you.”

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. Emily Auerbach is the co-founder of Odyssey.

Emily: My mother was born into poverty in Appalachia. My father and his family were refugees from Nazi Germany. My parents attended Berea College, a four-year liberal arts college, and it lifted both of them out of poverty. It broke the cycle of generational poverty for my mother's family.

Photo by Odyssey Program Manager Emily Azad

Emily and Bob Auerbach | Madison, WI

Bob: Berea is 100% no tuition; it is entirely free. We did have to work a minimum of ten hours a week. Berea was the first school in the South that admitted Black students before the Civil War.

Emily: When we started the UW Odyssey Project in 2003, I wanted it to be like Berea, without tuition. We designed the program for adults who, like my parents, faced significant economic barriers to education. Jean Feraca, my colleague at Wisconsin Public Radio, had heard of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a great works course introducing literature, philosophy, art history, and U.S. history. We wanted to bring this type of course to the UW. And I got the support of the chancellor’s office and other campus leaders to view Odyssey as embodying the Wisconsin Idea, the idea that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom. 

Bob: When Emily first started Odyssey, it was no sure thing that it would even be permitted. The program involved nontraditional students, was off campus, and required money. It wasn’t exactly easy to get started. 

Emily: My way of envisioning the program included my parents’ stories. My mother epitomizes the purpose of Odyssey. She came out of poverty in Appalachia, with no running water. No one in her family had gone to college or knew what college was for. She had gifts inside her when she arrived but didn’t recognize them. She was self-conscious about her speech and lack of fancy clothes. My mom represents to me this idea that poverty is circumstantial; it is often a lack of opportunity. My father and his family narrowly escaped Nazi Germany. But because both his parents were lawyers before fleeing and coming to the U.S., his story of poverty is that of the refugee losing what was there before. 

In creating the program, I was resistant to the idea that the class had to be remedial or practical only. I think that is one of the keys to Odyssey’s success. We assume that if the class is reading a Shakespeare sonnet or Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” everyone who gets the help they need to read it is going to find some way that it resonates with them. Our student body is over 90% students of color, so I felt it was important to have the curriculum reflect that. We combine great works of multicultural literature along with the classics. So we read Frederick Douglass’s narrative of his escape from slavery and Langston Hughes. We start the first week by reading The Circuit, which is a story about a migrant family. One focus of our course is to apply whatever we’re reading to today. If we read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we turn Ebenezer Scrooge into a modern-day character like a mean landlord and make it relevant.

Bob: One time, the class was discussing the Declaration of Independence. They started out on the first sentences, and after an hour they were still on those first two paragraphs because students kept broadening the discussion. It is very different from the classic education concept, where you sit in rows and somebody lectures.

Emily: The tables are arranged so we face each other. Their ideas are bouncing off the wall, and there is this feeling of camaraderie and support. Shy students find their voices during the year. They might start out by saying, ‘I’m not a good reader. I stumble on my words.’ Then classmates encourage them, and students find their sense of power. I think about my mom and her hands shaking when she had to speak in public. Sometimes, especially if you are raised to feel you’re not college material, that you’re not as good as folks with money, it is difficult to find that confidence. So, when we have students who don’t speak for several months, when they do find their voice, it is exhilarating.   

My favorite quotation from an Odyssey student was, ‘The Odyssey Project helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life.’ I think the arts and humanities do that. They help us see something inside of us that’s special. Many of the writing assignments include asking students to write about their name or about their background, to envision their life eight years from now, to write a song about themselves modeled after Walt Whitman’s. Once you figure out who you are and what is special about you, that stays with you.  

Bob: Emily thinks people should be able to go to school, and she thinks you shouldn’t give up on people who have had a hard time. 

Emily: I made Odyssey a family affair. My parents are part of the origin story, my husband is involved behind the scenes doing Costco food runs, one of my daughters designs our Oracle newsletters and the other daughter proofs them, and my son plays the viola in class sometimes. We encourage Odyssey students to bring in their children to Odyssey Junior or to have their parents be interviewed for a living history program. This multi-generational impact is part of our mission in Odyssey. 

Bob: I’ve been involved since the first class and play the piano in class and for each graduation. I think Odyssey is a life-changing program for everybody who participates in it, students and faculty. 

Emily: I remember that there was a Wisconsin State Journal story, just before we started the first class. The reporter asked me, “Why would poor people want to read Shakespeare and Plato?” I answered her question, but after I hung up the phone, I worried about my answer. So, I called my mom and asked her, “Why would poor people want to read Plato?” She gave me the most eloquent answer. She said something like, “First of all, we’re all human beings. Everyone has the same desires and emotions. But those at the poverty level need the humanities most of all. Because they are living very close to issues of injustice and suffering, the very things that are explored through the arts and humanities, it will hit them in a deep way.” After talking with my mom, I called the reporter back and said, “I had some extra thoughts.” 

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. 

You can learn more here about Bob Auerbach’s narrow escape from Nazi Germany, his internationally recognized scientific work at the University of Wisconsin, and why he believes in the power of education to break a cycle of generational poverty.  

Emily Auerbach with her parents, Wanda and Bob Auerbach. Photo by Keith Meyer.

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Photo 1: Emily teaching. Photo 2: Bob playing the piano at a graduation ceremony. Photo 3: Emily sharing an Oracle with Avé Thorpe. Photo 4: Emily with Odyssey alumna Josephine Lorya when she received her UW Masters in Social Work. Photo 5: Emily and staff with Odyssey Class of 2017 at the Chazen Museum of Art.

This short documentary about the Odyssey Project captures the spirit of this inspirational program. 

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