The students and staff of Odyssey Beyond Wars – the newest program of UW-Madison’s award-winning Odyssey Project – is getting set to celebrate its very first Veterans Day on Saturday, Nov. 11. Odyssey Beyond Wars (OBW) serves veterans who might be challenged by their transition from military to civilian life and are looking for an engaged community of peers as they jump-start in furthering their education.
Nine veterans from diverse backgrounds joined the inaugural two-semester program this fall. Through discussions of classics to more modern veteran writers, thinkers, artists, and musicians, Odyssey Beyond Wars aims to, according to its mission, “provide veterans context for their lived experiences and also the sense of camaraderie, common purpose, and collaboration that many often miss in their post-service lives – elements that are often essential for veterans’ post-secondary success.”
“I think Odyssey Beyond Wars fits pretty well inside the scope of Odyssey Program because we serve underserved populations and we serve populations that often go unnoticed … and veterans populations really do go unnoticed a lot of the times,” Erin Celello, the director of Odyssey Beyond Wars, tells Madison365. “A lot of the veterans that we work with are veterans that either never used their GI Bill or didn’t know that benefits were available to them. Within our class, we have a range of veterans, and most of them are older. A few of them are combat veterans in the group.”
Many OBW students have faced their share of struggles before, during, and after their military service, from poverty to incarceration to being unhoused.
“The group has seen some challenges. Some of them have experienced homelessness. Some of them have just experienced many different kinds of challenges in terms of their post-service life,” Celello says. “This class is a chance for some of them to get a jumpstart on their college education, but for some of them just a chance to be in kind of a community of their peers and have that camaraderie that they maybe missed from their days of service.”
Celello says the students’ reaction has been overwhelmingly positive since classes first started.
“They laugh a lot and they seem to really enjoy one another. Sometimes it’s hard to get a word in … which I consider a great problem to have,” Celello laughs. “They’ve brought some great ideas to the table. The first week or two, someone came up with the idea of doing a weekly affirmation. So each week it’s someone’s job to bring in an affirmation for the week. And we put that up and whatever it is, we read it and say a little about it.
“We are doing some really interesting things both individually and as a group collaboratively,” she adds. “It seems like the students are really enjoying it.”
The veterans recently heard from Yvette Pino, who started the Veteran Print Project here in Madison which is now a nationwide thing.
“She joined us via Zoom and is leading us through our workshop next week. She commented that just there’s something special when you get a group of veterans in a room,” Celello remembers. “You kind of have a tacit understanding of what that means. And even if they are not all from the same branch or you don’t all have the same MOS or you don’t have the same experiences exactly, there’s a common bond there and it’s really unifying.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison Odyssey Project recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and over the years has helped more than 500 students journey from adverse life situations to UW-Madison degrees and meaningful work in the community. Launched in 2003 by Emily Auerbach, Odyssey takes a whole family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to higher education and has launched multiple sub-programs including Onward Odyssey, Odyssey Junior, Odyssey Senior, Odyssey Beyond Bars in Wisconsin prisons and now Odyssey Beyond Wars for Wisconsin veterans.
For students in Odyssey Beyond Wars, it might seem that the goals of higher education and the goals of a college classroom in English or communication classroom are almost diametrically opposed to what people go through when they are in the military.
“The military values order, they value succinct communication in as few words as possible. They value not challenging and not thinking for themselves,” Celello says. “The university and college classroom, on the other hand, value the opposite of all those things. They want exploration. They want you to challenge your thinking. They want you to expand in writing and in speech what you’re thinking and not have things be so succinct. So to get veterans out of that mode can be physically challenging.”
Odyssey Beyond Wars is also a chance for veterans to try out college risk-free. Graduates earn six transferable college credits at no cost and without using any VA benefits. All military veterans — regardless of time in service, deployment history, disability status, or discharge status — are encouraged to apply to Odyssey Beyond Wars.
“The challenge always is finding the veterans,” Celello says. “Even those who served the veteran community, a challenge that a lot of them face is how do we connect with the people that we need to serve. So hopefully word of mouth will help in that sense in alerting people about this program … because it is a challenge.”
So far, year one has been an amazing experience for students and staff of Odyssey Beyond Wars.
“I hope that this is a program that continues to grow … I really do. I think that there is a need. I did spend a lot of time and a lot of shoe leather last year in just going out and talking to everyone I could think of in the veteran community,” Celello says. “When I would tell them about the program, they would light up and they would say, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is fantastic! This is what we need.’
“This program is important because not every veteran is ready to jump right into a college classroom. And, in fact, most are not … it’s it’s an intimidating thing.”