“Our lives changed because our understanding changed.”

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. Keena Atkinson is an alumna of Odyssey.

They say whenever you create a change in your life, you impact seven generations after you. And you also heal the seven generations that came before you. You spark transformation backwards and forward just by being brave enough or foolish enough to create a change.

Photo by Hedi LaMarr Rudd

Keena Atkinson | Madison, WI

Odyssey really changed my life because I was able to start to find freedom through education. Since then, I’ve gone on and earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology and my professional certifications in WERQ (exercise/dance) and yoga. I went to cosmetology school, and I bought my first multifamily property.

All of that started because I made the commitment to go to Odyssey every Wednesday and do the work.

As a young person, I was in an abusive relationship with someone who did not support my growth. When you’re dealing with somebody who is abusive and manipulates you, it can affect your self-esteem and sense of self-worth. By the time I was finishing high school, I really didn’t care a lot about myself. I believed all the things he said to me—those words became my inner voice.

I had my oldest son when I was in high school. After finally getting out of the abusive relationship, I moved back to my parents’ until we had a falling out. After that, I became homeless, and I started to live in my car after I exhausted my savings on a hotel. I don’t know how he knew, but one day my friend who owned a barbershop just told us to stay there at the shop. My son and I began to sleep there at night, and one day he said, “You should apply for this program.” It was the UW Odyssey Project. He was an alumnus and knew what it was about. I was unsure, thinking they wouldn’t accept me. I was so depressed; I couldn’t see past the day. 

I reluctantly filled out the application, and then I was interviewed by Emily Auerbach. She called sometime after the interview and told me that I was accepted into the program. I was still homeless when I got accepted and moved into an apartment soon after. 

I really started to discover life again. I had felt so hopeless in dealing with the pain and the disappointment of the circumstances that I was living and existing in. It required continuous support to get me to the place that I’m now at. Odyssey provided that support. Sometimes it would be just a lunch to talk through things and figure them out. Sometimes I needed a printer to complete my homework at home. Sometimes I needed internet, or I needed childcare, but having all of those needs met made a difference for me.

It also made a difference that I made a commitment: going to class each week, doing the homework, and speaking up in class, and just the fact that the space was safe enough to do that. Being in that classroom where all of us were dealing with our things, and then being able to come together on those Wednesday nights and just enjoy the adventure of learning.  

As I have been going through the healing that I am going through right now in my life, I always come back to the words. Words are vital for healing. I think I realized this language and healing connection during Odyssey, because we studied so many words and their meanings. Words have provided so much freedom for me. Words give us the ability to name things and being able to name things can allow us to not feel isolated or alone. You can find other people who share an experience with you, and then you can find community, which leads to stories and connections that bring us out of that isolated experience. 

That’s a way we’re able to connect, through storytelling. For example, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which was taught by Jean Ferraca during Odyssey. I still come back to it to this day. An allegory is a story or poem that has a hidden meaning. That story changed the way I hold onto things, and helped me learn to let go of things. I was able to find my voice, and I’m able to impact people because I am able to share and be vulnerable about the lowest places I’ve been in life. The things that connect us as humans, which are the humanities, which Odyssey teaches, are the reasons why we get out of bed every day.

My children went on to participate in Odyssey Junior. So, they too are part of the story of Odyssey now. For my family, our lives changed because our understanding changed. Our worlds became a little bit bigger. That’s what education is for me, over a period of time you can cause generations of change.

This Odyssey Project story series was produced by Hedi LaMarr Rudd (Odyssey class of 2012) and Jen Rubin (longtime Odyssey volunteer.)  You can visit the Odyssey Project website to learn more about the project.  

You can learn more here about why Keena started teaching yoga.  

Photo 1: Keena speaking about the Odyssey Project at the Madison Club Foundation. Photos 2 and 3: Keena at her UW graduation. Channel 3000 video below is a feature on Keena after she graduated.

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

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