“No matter how big the obstacles are in front of you—success is possible.”

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. Marisol Gonzalez is an alumna of Odyssey. 

Several years ago, my friend Chris invited me to the Odyssey Project graduation. I didn’t really know much about the program, but I went. When I heard these wonderful stories of educational success, it moved me.

Photo courtesy of Marisol Gonzalez

Marisol Gonzalez | Wisconsin, WI

 It moved me to the point that I said to myself, “I want that. How can I get that?”  

So, I asked Chris, “How does this program work?” She told me I could apply and introduced me to Emily Auerbach right then.

I remember putting very basic answers to the questions on the application because my writing in English wasn’t that good. I was very nervous at the interview and was sure they were not going to choose me. When I found out that they did choose me to be part of the Odyssey Project I was so excited.

When I was little it was very hard for me to even think about achieving any type of education because no one in my family even finished high school. My grandmother was an orphan who was on her own by the age of eight and never learned how to read or write. My mom and dad had to work and didn’t get past third grade. But I always wanted an opportunity for education. On the first day of kindergarten, other kids were crying, but I just waved and said, “Bye, mom.” I wanted to be there. I wanted to learn. 

But I had a problem: I couldn’t see very well. It wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen that they figured out that my eyes weren’t good; but glasses were really expensive. School was a struggle because I wasn’t able to see well. In high school I was in a bad relationship, ended up pregnant, became a single mom at eighteen, and moved to Wisconsin to join my parents. Being a single mom and the barrier of language made it difficult for me to continue my education. I asked my dad if I could go to high school. He said, “Yeah, but now you have a kid. You have to work for your child. If you can figure out how to take care of your son and get an education, then you can do whatever you want.” But it was very hard because I didn’t know the language and needed to work. I took classes to learn English. My idea was, “If I can communicate in English, it’s enough.” Later I took classes at Madison College to learn the grammar rules so I could write better. There were so many rules, and it made me feel like it was impossible to learn it all. I gave up on level six of English.

In the Odyssey class we worked on more than just the grammar rules. They had us read something and then answer questions. But these weren’t right or wrong questions; they wanted to know what we thought, what was inside our minds. They wanted to know what this reading made us feel. It gave me this desire to express myself, to write. I wanted my teachers to know what was in my mind. I liked what we read in class because it talked about the human condition. I loved the discussions we had in the class because we all related in one way or another to the readings. Every night it was an ‘aha’ moment for me. Sometimes it was a new word with a powerful meaning, or reading Socrates, Plato, Gandhi, Sor Juana … or learning about the Constitution and history. 

 When I was going through the program, my husband was studying for his construction exam. With little kids we were busy juggling schedules. Odyssey gave us this big opportunity by providing childcare and also dinner. I remember many weeks coming home with an extra dinner for my husband and talking to him about the things that we discussed in class, and him getting interested. When I graduated, he said, ‘I want to apply for it. Can I do that too?’  

Now I have all of these ideas; I want to write a book of short stories of my life as an immigrant, I want to continue writing children’s books that have Latino characters. This semester, I am taking the theater class that Odyssey offered, and now I think I could write a play someday. Why not? Odyssey has opened the door to infinite opportunities. My dream is to be published, and I know that I can do that because Odyssey gave me what I needed to feel like I am capable. Odyssey gave us this opportunity to break down barriers to do what we want with our lives. One of my dreams when I came to the United States was to go to the University of Wisconsin, have my own school identification card, and be able to say, ‘Well, I’m a student of the UW.’ My parents worked at the university as custodians, and I always had this hope for education. When I started with the Odyssey Project and got my student ID, I remember coming home. I got on my knees and I cried. I thanked God for this wonderful opportunity because I never thought this would be something for me. There is this saying…I’m thinking in Spanish, but in English I think you say…‘the limit is the sky.’

 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. 

Marisol was featured on Inside Stories podcast with a story she told at the Odyssey writing class. The story centers on when she and her family moved into an all-white neighborhood and the neighborhood party she organized when her family was not initially welcomed.   

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Photos 1 and 2: Marisol with her family. Photo 3: Marisol at the Night of the Living Humanities, a fundraiser for the Odyssey Project.

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

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