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. Farren is an alumnus of  Odyssey. 

I originally left school to play music. When I was younger, I hated school. I had a really bad time in secondary school and I just kind of drifted away.

Photo courtesy of Emily Azed

Farren McDonald | Madison, WI

This was back in Ireland, and I’d been playing music for a few years. Then that dried up and I wanted to come to America because I loved American music growing up. Weirdly, it was the TV show Game of Thrones that gave me the money to come here.

They filmed the northern parts of the show where I come from in Ireland. I got a job as an extra for one of the big battle scenes. I spent some of the money on a good suit and some random stuff.  I think I had 1,000 pounds left, and said, “I need to get out of here,” so I bought a ticket to America.

When I got to America, I started playing music in Irish bars and dive bars. After a few years of that, I felt like my brain was going to stop working if I didn’t do something different. I talked with my wife about trying to get back into education, but I didn’t really know how to approach it. I had been away from education for so long that the entire thing was like a mystery to me. Then my wife found the Odyssey Project and said, “This might be a good way to get the ball rolling.” I wrote an essay for the application. Emily Auerbach, the project director, sent me an email saying she liked the essay, and I was in the program. 

Being part of Odyssey during Covid kept me grounded during this horrible year. Many of us had mental health and financial challenges, and this was a powerful thing that we got to do. It was the perfect time for me because the classes gave me some structure. Odyssey kept me focused mentally when things got chaotic. It was a place where I had to be sincere. I have a habit of making everything in my life into a joke. I might tell people what’s going on, but I’ll make it sound funny, so they don’t realize how serious it is. But with Odyssey, the readings are challenging and everything is really sincere and that forced me to respond honestly.  

Odyssey has inspired me in deeper ways than simply getting an education; it made me realize that I can’t just retreat into a private world. You have to make little communities, you have to read about people, read about what’s going on, you have to go out into the world and take part in some way. Reading all this philosophy and literature has been amazing for me. Being asked for our personal responses to these readings, it brought out a lot of stuff in me that I hadn’t even talked to myself about before. And then that sort of started an internal discussion that really changed me over the last year. I needed that kind of self-examination; it kind of inspired me to be a better person.

Last year I was abusing alcohol fairly badly and right now I’m working on it. Because of the kind of self-reflection that came from the readings we did in class, I’ve been more at peace with myself. I’ve always written, but Emily gave me back a little bit of self-esteem by picking out pieces of my writing and saying, “This is genuinely good.” Odyssey gave me a bit of inner strength, so I’m not going to be knocked off course so easily by little things.  

It was amazing for me to read Plato’s Cave with the class. I had read it years ago. I thought I understood what it was talking about, that everyone is going to have a limited view of what’s going on in the world based on circumstance. But it didn’t mean anything to me. When we read it in class, everyone was bringing their personal experiences to bear on it, whether that was abusive relationships, drug addiction, which I could kind of relate to myself, or literally being in prison. Hearing my classmates say “I know exactly what it’s like in there. I was in the cave,” I really understood why philosophy like Plato’s Cave was so important. I thought, “Oh I get it now. I understood it before, but now I really get it.”  

Last year I said, “This is going to be my year,” because my dad and my sister came to visit me, and it was a really good time. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a great year and I’m going to get my shit together.” And Covid came and showed me how insignificant I was. Then Odyssey began and as the semester carried on, I started to think, “okay, I’m going to have to take control of my own life rather than waiting for some magical year to come along.” 

This year I rediscovered how much I actually like learning, which I hadn’t felt in a long time. I applied and got accepted to Madison College for the transfer program to the University of Wisconsin.  I want to go on and do a master’s after that.  I just want to keep going and keep learning.

 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. 

Farren read his poem “Song of Meself” at the Odyssey virtual 2021 graduation.  You can find the video here—he starts reading at the 34:23 mark of the video.

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Photo 1: Farren performing in an Irish pub. Photo 2: Farren as an extra in Game of Thrones.

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

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