Students turn around lives in Odyssey Project - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Students turn around lives in Odyssey Project


MADISON (WKOW) -- Thirty students receive their ID's from UW-Madison as their single, Humanities course continues. For these collegians, the experience can be life-changing.

"This is my second chance," 42-year old student Robert James tells 27 News. "I have to advantage of it.

James is part of The Odyssey Project. Project director Emily Auerbach says Odyssey allows financially-strapped adults with challenges such as homelessness, recent immigration, and past incarceration to receive cost-free, university instruction. Auerbach says the two-semester course is coordinated with the city's South Madison library, where most of the instruction takes place. Auerbach says contributing professors from philosophy, history and other disciplines make the Odyssey educational experience a varied, and valuable sampler of university attendance.

James is a Chicago native who says he grew up on the tough streets of a cluster of city housing projects. James has been behind bars at times in his adult life, but managed to earn his GED, and welcomes The Odyssey Project's contribution to his future prospects.

One of his first assignments, the poem "Holy Thursday" by William Blake, already resonates with his personal experiences.

He cites a poem passage: "Is this a holy thing to see, in a rich and fruitful land, babes reduced to misery?"

"For me, when I read the Blake poem, it just takes me back. It takes me back to those times, to seeing and feeling, the smells, the sights, the sounds. And it was just amazing to me, that a writer from the seventeen-hundreds could transform me...back to my own childhood," James tells 27 News. 

Another student, 27-year old working mother Vanessa Lopes Maia, arrived in Iowa from Brazil as a high schooler, without speaking English. She graduated high school, attained community college credits, and now displays a mastery of the English language.

She tells 27 News, her course work in the Odyssey Project can broaden her horizons.

"I want to learn as much as I can, as a person and a student. I want to give back, what they're giving to me. They're believing in me. And it's an opportunity of a lifetime."

Not only does the Odyssey Project cover student tuition, it provides a free meal on class nights, and free child care for students who are parents. Auerbach says thirty-five children are enrolled in the current class night, child care program.

The project is funded by the university and donors, of which Auerbach says there have been nine-hundred over the project's eleven year history. Auerbach says more than half the project's funding is committed to helping project graduates continue schooling through assistance to cover gaps in financial aid, books and materials costs, and other educational needs.

"Some of our graduates are working as nurses, teacher's aides, teaching assistants," Auerbach tells 27 News. Informational material on the Odyssey Project chronicles the passage of two project graduates from the classroom, to the ranks of Madison police officers. "It's exciting to see the transformation," Auerbach says.

Lopes Maia says she's determined to expand her career horizons through Odyssey, and by example, help her two children aim high.

"Go on to probably UW, to get my four year degree," Lopes Maia says of post-project plans. "And try and then go to law school."

Auerbach says she's moved by the spark of her students. "It's that hunger, that motivation, to make a turn-around direction in their life, that speaks to me as the director of the project."


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