Documentary celebrates Odyssey Project’s 10-year journey

Dec. 3, 2012

by Susannah Brooks

Photo: Odyssey Project class

Emily Auerbach, professor of English and director of the Odyssey Project, leads a class in south Madison in 2010. The project is the topic of a new Big Ten Network documentary, which can be viewed at a special event Thursday, Dec. 6, at Sundance Cinemas 608.

Photo: Jeff Miller

On its 10th anniversary, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Odyssey Project has much to celebrate. Journeys from homelessness to graduate school, or incarceration to meaningful employment, are two of more than 250 success stories.

For some students, the best outcome is the empowerment of finding their own voice.

The Odyssey Project is the subject of a new episode of "Forward Motion," a Big Ten Network show produced by UW-Madison. Odyssey will hold a public viewing of the show at Sundance Cinemas 608, 430 N. Midvale Boulevard (in the Hilldale Mall), on Thursday, Dec. 6. A reception will take place from 5-7 p.m., with three show times. All graduates, current students, faculty, donors and members of the public are invited.

The episode will also be available Friday via UW-Madison's YouTube channel.

Odyssey director and founder Emily Auerbach, an English professor who runs the program through the Division of Continuing Studies, based the program in part on the model of Kentucky's Berea College. Her own parents — Wanda Irwin Auerbach, who grew up in Appalachia without running water, and Robert Auerbach, who escaped Nazi persecution in Germany — met at Berea while taking advantage of the free four-year liberal arts education the college provided to poor students.

“Without [the Odyssey Project], I would not have realized the insatiable desire I have to learn and to model that example for my family.”

Anthony Ward

"My parents understood so well what a difference opportunity could make in the life of someone who had been written off," says Emily Auerbach. "The Odyssey Project is going strong after 10 years because I know from their journey out of poverty, through free access to higher education, that education is what can break the cycle of generational poverty. Whole lives can change."

The Odyssey Project meets students where they are — literally and figuratively. Its two-step process begins at the Goodman South Madison Branch library, every Wednesday night from September through May. Thirty students explore great works in the humanities as a way to recognize their own gifts while easing into the rigors of college work.

"Students who complete the course report that they feel better about themselves, have more hope about their futures, become more active in their communities, read more, are more likely to vote, and improve their abilities as parents, even if they have not yet escaped poverty," wrote Auerbach in "Wisconsin People and Ideas."

Support from grants, private donations and from UW-Madison supplies students with free tuition, textbooks, childcare and a weekly dinner. At the end of the program, the students have earned six credits in English and a springboard to new avenues in life: meaningful work, a college degree, and more.

"Without [the Odyssey Project], I would not have realized the insatiable desire I have to learn and to model that example for my family," says Anthony Ward, one of the documentary's subjects, whose Odyssey experience led to a career as a Madison police officer and admission to UW-Madison. "The Odyssey Project classes stimulate the mind and also are run with love and respect."

The anniversary is bittersweet. Wanda Auerbach, a former reference librarian at UW-Madison, is featured in the documentary. She passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, Nov. 25, before seeing her own story told on a national stage. As her legacy, however, she requested that memorials be made to charities "devoted to free access to higher education for those facing economic barriers" — Berea College and the Odyssey Project.

"She was an ardent supporter; she got very interested in every student's life," says Emily Auerbach. "She understood that students who wanted to come to class couldn't afford the gas, or find the textbook, because she had been there. And she also understood that any program dealing with lower income adults must use absolute respect."

The documentary premiered on the Big Ten Network on Sunday, Dec. 2 — the day Wanda Auerbach was laid to rest. Her husband plans to attend the program viewing on Thursday.

"Her legacy will live on with this program," says Emily Auerbach. "It makes me want to throw myself into the project with even more fervor."