A Personal Odyssey

“Why would poor people want to take a humanities class?” a newspaper reporter asked me. After answering the question as best I could, I called my mother and got a much more eloquent response.

“Why talk about ‘poor people’ as if they are different than any other human beings?” my mother replied. “If anything, poor people are closer to suffering, injustice, deferred dreams and other topics explored in literature. They need the humanities and will respond more viscerally to what they read, not less.”

Born in Appalachia, my mother grew up dirt-poor without running water. No one in her family had gone to college—or even dreamed of it. My father’s family lost every-thing when forced to flee Nazi Germany. My parents, Wanda and Robert Auerbach, met at Kentucky’s Berea College, the sole four-year liberal arts college in the country accepting only low-income students and offering free tuition to all. Both my parents went on to earn advanced degrees at Columbia University and to lead professional lives here in Madison—my father as a UW zoology professor, my mother as a medical reference librarian on campus.

Because of my parents’ story, I passionately believe in providing access to higher education for those in our community who have tremendous gifts but lack the income and the confidence. Every year for the last ten years, I have brought my parents with me into the Odyssey classroom. Their story of escaping poverty through hard work and determination inspires us all.

The 2013 graduation ceremony will be bittersweet. A few months ago, my mother died while leaning her head on her beloved husband of sixty-two years. At the May 8 graduation ceremony, we will award the first Wanda Auerbach Memorial Odyssey Scholarships to past and present students facing adversity as they try to achieve their dreams through higher education.

I know my mother would be pleased, as she made it her mission to help others.

Emily Auerbach is director of the Odyssey Project and an English professor at UW–Madison. For more information on the Odyssey Project, read Auerbach's story "Behind the Odyssey" or visit odyssey.wisc.edu.

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