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UW Odyssey Project celebrates 20 years of taking a whole family approach to empowering students

The UW Odyssey Project Class of 2023 taken at the Chazen Museum of Art (Photo by Emily Azad)

The 2022-2023 academic year is the official 20th anniversary of the UW Odyssey Project, which has grown tremendously since its inception in 2003 and now boasts over 600 graduates.

“It is hard to believe that this is our 20th year. But we’re so excited about how far we’ve come and how far we’re going,” Emily Auerbach, Odyssey Project co-director and founder, tells Madison365. “And it’s a perfect time to take a look back and look ahead.”

The UW Odyssey Project is celebrating its 20th anniversary​‌ this year with a big event on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the UW Memorial Union Great Hall, 800 Langdon St. The event, “20 Years of Amplifying Student Voices and Celebrating Voting,” will include a new film about the Odyssey Project and student readers of winning “Why Vote?” essays and poems.

Odyssey Project Director Emily Auerbach

“The event is open to the public and there will be refreshments, food, and music and a chance to get registered to vote,” Auerbach says. “The program will take place roughly from 6-7 p.m. It’s going to be a fun time.”

Each year in the heart of South Madison, 30 students embark on a six-credit English literature course where UW-Madison faculty members introduce adults to great works of literature, philosophy, history, and art and help them improve skills in writing and critical thinking. In class, students read, write about, and engage in lively discussions about Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Lorraine Hansberry, and more.

Auerbach remembers that very first Odyssey meeting in the Harambee Center in the heart of Madison’s south side, which was recently demolished, where the group was sponsored by the South Madison Public Library. She says that Chris Wagner, who was the head librarian at Madison Public Library’s South Madison neighborhood library for many years, “was such a big supporter of Odyssey from the very beginning.”

“I remember we had 30 students starting a program where we hoped it was going to work, but didn’t have a clear sense of what the future would bring,” Auerbach says. “And many of the same teachers that are with me then are still with us now 20 years later.”

The Odyssey Project has been in south Madison for all of its 20 years, moving a few times including to the new South Madison Library next to the Urban League and to the 3,000-square-foot former Cricket phone store that is now the home of Urban Triage. 

In those 20 years, the Odyssey program has expanded to now include Odyssey Junior students, ages 2-18, who participate in one of three Odyssey Junior classrooms while their parents or grandparents are in class. There is also now an Onward Odyssey for Odyssey alumni, and Odyssey Beyond Bars for incarcerated students.

Odyssey Beyond Bars, in particular, has been a big success, offering college jumpstart programs to students incarcerated in Wisconsin state prisons.

Brian Benford, Odyssey Project’s success coach 
(Photo by Julia Matthews Photography)


The UW Odyssey Program has numerous alumni who have gone on to do great things in Madison. Brian Benford, a former Odyssey Project student who is now the Odyssey Project’s success coach, says the program has “been so transformative for me.”

“Here I was in my late 40s and I never thought I would have an opportunity to reach my full potential through education. But because of Odyssey, I was able to do that and go on and get my bachelor’s [degree] in social work and my master’s [degree] in social work, so I can better serve those in the community,” Benford tells Madison365. “Odyssey is a gift that keeps on giving.”

The UW Odyssey Project is housed in the UW South Madison Partnership Space where you can find photos of Odyssey graduates just about everywhere.
(Photo by A. David Dahmer)

As the Odyssey Project success coach, Benford supports Odyssey students and alumni facing obstacles that stand in the way of pursuing higher education. Benford can be seen Monday through Friday at the Odyssey headquarters at the UW South Madison Partnership Space whose hallways are full of hundreds of former Odyssey students’ pictures.

Benford says he loves the Odyssey photos.

“I oftentimes do look at all the photos and I’m just inspired as I look around at all these mostly BIPOC individuals in this city full of racial disparities, and I’m reminded that this is the epitome of the Wisconsin Idea,” he says. 

“These photos get me through many days and I’m really appreciative of what Odyssey has done and continues to do in our community,” he adds.


Keena Atkinson (Odyssey ’10) went on to get a UW-Madison degree and start businesses of her own is with Corey Saffold (Odyssey ’06) who earned his bachelor’s from UW-Whitewater, served two years on the UW Board of Regents, planning on applying to law school. Both Atkinson and Saffold are featured in the new Odyssey Project film that will be shown at the Oct. 12 celebration. (Photo: Odyssey Project)




Benford’s story is one of the dozens of stories that you will hear at Odyssey celebration events which is the place to hear amazing, heartwarming stories from its students who have triumphed over incredible adversity or overcome incredible odds.

“From the beginning with Odyssey, we’ve made sure that every event features student voices. So at graduation, instead of focusing on some guest speaker, we have all 30 students get up and share something at graduation,” Auerbach says. “At the Oct. 12 event, we’ll have readers both from this year’s class and from past years who are sharing what they’ve written either about voting or about their Odyssey journey.”

The Odyssey Project will debut a new film at the 20th-anniversary event.

 “One part of the event I’m really looking forward to sharing with the audience, both in person and online, is a new film that UW Communications just completed,” Auerbach says. “It’s slightly under seven minutes, so it’s a short film, but it showcases three of our graduates and they will literally move you to tears. One of them cries during the film. One of them talks about coming out of prison and taking our Odyssey Beyond Bars course and now he’s in this year’s class.”

Mark Espanol, a graduate of the Odyssey Beyond Bars program, with his son, Irie, and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (Photo: Odyssey Project)

That Odyssey student featured in the film is Mark Espanol, a graduate of the Odyssey Beyond Bars program at Oakhill Correctional who is now part of the Odyssey Class of 2023.  

“The film also features Cory Saffold who talks about how he got turned away the first year and he came back and got into Odyssey and it changed his life,” Auerbach says. “So our three featured students in the film are Keena Atkinson, who went from being homeless to being a landlord. We have Corey Saffold, who ended up after Odyssey going on to get his bachelor’s degree and to serve for two years on the Board of Regents. He’s now studying for his law school test. And then we have Mark Espanol, who graduated from our Oak Hill class in Odyssey Beyond Bars in 2021. He got out in December, won the Moth Storytelling Contest in January, and applied for our regular Odyssey class. And he’s in our 20th-year class now. He’s pictured in the film reading to his son.”

The 20th anniversary will also have tables from the League of Women Voters and Madison Public Library so people can register to vote or get information on how to do that. 

“With the voting event, that’s something we’ve done every other year, every time there’s either a presidential election or a mid-term election, and events centered on voting fit Odyssey’s mission of trying to promote civic engagement,” Auerbach says. “We want our students to become more aware of history, more aware of their own rights, more powerful in the use of their own voices, and to not feel marginalized or disenfranchised. So we’ve always done some kind of event to encourage voting.”

The Odyssey Project takes a whole family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, giving adult and youth learners a voice, and increasing confidence through reading, writing, and speaking.  

“I’m so proud of the graduates of this program, and all they’ve been able to accomplish. It’s that generational impact that I think is the most exciting about our program,” Auerbach says. “There’s one Odyssey family where I’ve worked with three generations. 

“I think the most exciting part for me is some of the students from those early years that have gone on to get degrees and are now either on our staff or they’re contributing as volunteers or they’ve sent their children through our program,” she adds. “So we have a multi-generational impact. And that’s the best part.”


Celebrate the Odyssey Project’s 20th anniversary in person or via Zoom on Wednesday, Oct. 12. Click here to register.