“The heartache and the hardship for this class has been overwhelming, but so has the perseverance and the courage,” UW Odyssey Project Director Emily Auerbach tells Madison365.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Odyssey Project, now in its 18th year, will celebrate 35 graduates at the Odyssey Class of 2021 Online Graduation Ceremony tonight at 6 p.m.

“The Graduation Ceremony really celebrates the diversity of our class. As you know, Odyssey is about 95 percent students of color from all over and that really comes across in our graduation readings and activities,” Auerbach says. “And thanks to donors, we are delivering flowers, balloons, certificates, and gifts and monetary prizes to all of our graduating students.” 

The UW Odyssey Project offers a free two-semester humanities class for nearly three dozen students each year where they provide textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner for students who live near the poverty line. The students are overwhelmingly people of color and over half are single parents.

Odyssey Project Director Emily Auerbach

“Last year was the class of 2020 when everything shut down in the middle of March, we thought that that class was making history to become the first Odyssey Class to graduate online. We did the last six weeks of class and the graduation ceremony online,” Auerbach says. “I never dreamed that a year later we would be doing it again that way and that we would have a class that never met in person.

“So this class has been heroic and inspiring in their resilience,” she adds.

Eight Odyssey students from the class of 2021 have tested positive for COVID-19 during the schoolyear.

“Many have lost loved ones to COVID. All of them have been battling lost wages, children home from school, financial stresses, depression. It’s been a terrible year; but a wonderful class,” Auerbach says.

For UW-Madison Odyssey Project students and families who were financially struggling already, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially devastating. This year, Auerbach says, Odyssey has shifted a lot of its budget to emergency relief because of COVID-19.

“We’ve had many students who have not been able to connect with us, so we have been providing a Wi-Fi stipend. Since we can’t share meals together, we’ve been providing a supplement for food. We’ve been trying to help students stay housed,” Auerbach says. “We’ve had more students battling depression and other mental health issues. That’s why having Brian Benford on board as our success coach has been so crucial. He’s been working overtime this year with so many crises. 

 “I’ve been really moved by the way students in this class have come together to encourage each other and to feel connected through their words – both the spoken word during our class and the written word as we share newsletters on the screen with their writing in it,” Auerbach continues. “We’ve been finding ways to connect – acting out scenes in plays, doing artwork, having them choose a fabric and having them make a digital quilt. We’ve been finding all kinds of ways to feel connected and form that Odyssey community that is so key to what we do.”

COVID-19 restrictions have prevented the students from meeting in person for class, but Odyssey still carries on with all four parts of its program – Odyssey, Odyssey Junior (children and grandchildren of students), Onward Odyssey (for Odyssey alumni), and Odyssey Beyond Bars (incarcerated students).

“We’ve done all four of those online successfully this year and that has taken just an extraordinary amount of effort from our entire team to adapt each component from our programs online,” Auerbach says.

The Odyssey Program delivered books and art supplies and hosted Zoom classes for the kids, ranging from toddlers to high school seniors, of the Odyssey Junior Program

“We admitted 35 students in June instead of our normal 30 assuming there would be a higher than normal dropout rate because of the pandemic,” Auerbach says. “We are graduating all 35 with UW credits.”

Two of the students will be receiving one semester’s worth of credits because they stopped midway because of challenging circumstances. The other 33 will be receiving all six UW-Madison credits.


UW Odyssey Class of 2021 ( Photos by Hedi LaMarr Photography)

In a normal Odyssey Project graduation ceremony, the students — along with about 400 cheering friends, family and community members — would come to the UW-Madison Great Hall decked out with flowers and balloons. Each student would come up to the podium and speak and receive a certificate and a gift.

“Tonight, each of our graduating students will have recorded a minute or so of something that they wrote,” Auerbach says. “They were coached by Odyssey’s Theatre Professor Baron Kelly. Each student will be on the screen sharing something.”

Kelly will be at tonight’s event along with Auerbach and Odyssey Co-director Kevin Mullen, and Friend of Odyssey Award winner and storyteller Jen Rubin. The four will help the students celebrate the completion of six UW credits in English literature. This will be the first graduating class to complete both semesters of Odyssey online.

“One great thing about the virtual graduation is that family members who are in a different country or different state or in a hospital bed, can tune in and attend,” Auerbach says. “So it opens up our graduation to a wider world. I know that it’s going to leave people inspired.”

Odyssey Class of 2021 Online Graduation Ceremony will end with a three-minute video of children in the Odyssey Junior Program.

“Just looking at their beautiful faces makes you feel hopeful about the future,” Auerbach says. “The Odyssey Program has a multi-generational impact. We’re now seeing children who were in our childcare 10 years ago graduating from UW-Madison and applying to Law School.”


Join the graduates online for a powerful evening celebrating the graduation of the Odyssey Class of 2021. Here is the link to the graduation ceremony.