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UW Odyssey Project launches Odyssey Senior

Odyssey Senior students and staff

Earlier this month, the UW Odyssey Project launched a brand-new enrichment program called Odyssey Senior to spotlight the incredible and unique stories of Odyssey elders. 

“I think history is real when you meet people who have lived through it,” Odyssey Project Executive Director Emily Auerbach tells Madison365. “I’ve always wanted, as part of Odyssey, to gather the stories of our older students and their relatives because sometimes it’s too late if you don’t get those stories down on paper … and there are just so many wonderful stories.”

The new Odyssey Senior group meets on Monday mornings and Auerbach brings in special guests every week. So far, it’s been a hit.

“I’ve wanted to do an Odyssey Senior for a long time and I had tried little versions,” Auerbach remembers. “For example, some years ago, I did what I called the living history panel, where I brought in four elders to be interviewed by the adult class and by the teens in our junior program … because it just always seemed to be that one of the best ways to make history real is to hear from people who were there.”

The UW 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. The new Odyssey Senior pilot group is designed for Odyssey students and their relatives and they are meeting every week in March and April to explore ways to create living histories. There are currently 14 students in the program; most of them are Odyssey alumni who have now reached age 60 or above. 

“Some of them have been out of Odyssey for a while and they’re delighted to come back in and engage in writing again,” Auerbach says. “And then, in addition, we have three students in the class who are mothers of students. So they never went through Odyssey but now they’re able to kind of share in what we do as a group, which is to discuss literature, celebrate writing, and uncover gifts.”

Mary Wells ’07 with her 91-year-old mother, Ms. Sarah Wells (Photo: Odyssey Project)

The oldest Odyssey Senior student is 91. She goes by “Ms. Wells”

“I asked the students to write a few sentences about each other on that first day that we were together on March 6, and one of her sentences was ‘my brother had to leave for three years because he was threatened with lynching,'” Auerbach says. “And so that’s the kind of thing that is coming out in class that makes me really glad that we’re doing the program.

“Three of the students in the class discovered they grew up in the same Robert Taylor housing projects [in the historic African American Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side] at roughly the same time,” she adds. “They never knew each other back then. But three of them came from the same background in terms of surviving the projects. That’s pretty incredible.”

To stimulate their own writing, Odyssey Senior participants also read excerpts from autobiographical writings by Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and others. 

“Odyssey Senior, we are 95% students of color, and therefore a lot of the stories that are coming out are about discrimination, resilience, and survival,” Auerbach says. “And I think those stories can be really inspiring.”

In April, the Odyssey Project will celebrate 20 years. The program has empowered more than 500 low-income adults to find their voices and get a jump start at earning college degrees they never thought possible. The program started in 2003 when Auerbach and poet and journalist Jean Feraca had an idea to develop an outreach program in the humanities for nontraditional students. The two-semester jumpstart course has continued to grow over the years and has launched a variety of programs out of the original.

“We now have what we call Onward Odyssey .. things that we offer for our alumni and that includes now separate alumni classes taught out in South Madison,” Auerbach says. “We have classes in writing, theater, sociology, race and ethnicity, and history. So we’re building a bunch of courses for UW credit that students can take together as Odyssey alumni where they still have that camaraderie and support.”

The Odyssey Beyond Bars program offers classes to those incarcerated in Wisconsin and is currently in four Wisconsin prisons and expanding to more. The Odyssey Junior program is for the children of the students.

“We now go from baby Badgers, newborns, up through teenagers getting pre-college advising,” Auerbach says of Odyssey Junior.

The Odyssey Project recently launched Odyssey Beyond Wars, a two-semester sequence specifically for veterans.

“We’re also developing what we are calling our Odyssey Family Learning Center. We just acquired more space in this building down in the basement — we have 1,400 square feet next to Space Place,” Auerbach says. “If you come out here on Tuesday nights you’ll hear tuba, violin, guitar, and music lessons. We want to expand what we’re able to offer families in the way of tutoring and advising and counseling.”

Odyssey Project Executive Director Emily Auerbach with Marcia Brown, Class of 2012

The new Senior Program will take a little break as the Odyssey Program gets through its 20th-anniversary event in late April, but Auerbach assures that they will be back at it. 

“I’m thinking of a model of a program where we meet every other week. I know everybody wants to keep on meeting. They enjoy it a lot,” Auerbach says. “And I really enjoy it, too. I really love being in a room with folks who want to tell their stories and maybe feel like they haven’t been asked to do so. And they’re wanting to share their experiences with, in some cases, great-grandchildren and others in the family who should know their family story.”

Auerbach says she would love to see the Senior Program expand … even well beyond the Odyssey program.

“There’s a need for this in the broader Madison community. So if I had the staffing and funding to expand and make it available to other elders in the community who have not gone through Odyssey, that would be wonderful. That’s one of those dreams for the future.”