Behind the Odyssey

How one college course is transforming lives

For Sherri Bester, the Odyssey Project has helped her to “open up the endless doors to education, freedom, empowerment and hope.” See more photos in the slideshow below. Tineisha Scott remembers running out of the house in the middle of the night with no shoes on, scared, hiding to get away from the abuse and drug use overrunning her home. As a young man, Corey Saffold found himself racially profiled. Sherri Bester suffered from PTSD and anxiety so extreme she got severe panic attacks during tests.

These three Madisonians faced personal struggles and obstacles that often seemed insurmountable. Fortunately, they also each encountered a class syllabus that included Plato, Whitman, Dickens, Shakespeare and Toni Morrison.

And they embarked on paths to success beginning in a classroom in the library on the south side of Madison.

Scott, Saffold and Bester are all graduates of the Odyssey Project, a free humanities course offered through UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies and English Department to adult students facing economic barriers to college. Each year, the Odyssey Project gives thirty students free tuition, textbooks and childcare—and access to life-changing discussions
of literature, philosophy, history and art led by UW
humanities faculty.

Ten years ago when I launched this program with the help of my Wisconsin Public Radio colleague Jean Feraca and a team of other UW faculty members (Craig Werner, Marshall Cook and Gene Phillips), we hoped our challenging two-semester course would not only give students six UW credits but also help them find a new sense of power. 

Since then, three hundred adults have walked through the doors of our classroom. Some of our students have moved from homelessness to UW degrees and on to graduate school, from incarceration to meaningful work in the community. Whole families have been transformed.

Tineisha Scott, a single mother of three who identifies herself as African American, Caucasian and Native American, was one of the thirty students accepted into the first Odyssey class in 2003. She combined her six Odyssey credits from UW with coursework from MATC and went on to Edgewood College to earn a bachelor’s degree with honors in psychology.

“Both my parents were addicted to crack cocaine. My father was in and out of prison,” says Scott. “I was born in Madison and I wanted to change the cycle of poverty in my family. I became the first college graduate in my family and out of all my friends.”

Last year, Scott also became the first Odyssey student to earn a master’s degree. She now works as a marriage and family therapist, a social worker and a coordinator at a shelter for women and children.

At home, Scott’s eighth grader is an award-winning student already visiting colleges and talking about her future, and the younger siblings are thriving, too. “My educational success has already had an impact on my children,” she says. “The Odyssey Project helped me build confidence in myself, gave me inspiration and offered me a support system—something that was so foreign to me.”

Like Scott, Corey Saffold’s path to success was blocked by a lack of confidence. “My mindset was my biggest obstacle,” he says. “I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe I was smart enough.”

Along with his twenty-nine classmates in the 2005–2006 program, Saffold spent two semesters discussing challenging works of literature, philosophy and history. He read Emily Dickinson, analyzed the Federalist Papers, wrote poetry, acted out scenes from A Raisin in the Sun, discussed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and visited the Chazen Museum of Art. As a class assignment, Saffold wrote an editorial about the unbalanced incarceration rate of black men in Wisconsin. He saw his article published in the Wisconsin State Journal and heard Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson refer to it in her address at his graduation ceremony.

“The Odyssey Project showed me that I was smarter than I ever imagined,” he says. “It changed how I thought of myself, which changed how I thought of life.”

A father of two and a local musician, Saffold now works full-time as a Madison police officer while pursuing his bachelor’s degree through Concordia University’s criminal justice program. He serves on the force with fellow Odyssey alum Anthony Ward, a UW student and father of five.

“People who thought that they would never go to college are now making the Dean’s List,” says Saffold. “Their children do better in school and have plans for college.”

For Sherri Bester of the 2008 class, the Odyssey Project’s draw was the support system that encouraged her through dark times. A survivor of abuse who has mental illness, disabilities and extreme test anxiety, Bester has worked hard to overcome her fears.

The Odyssey Project has, in her words,  helped her “break through the glass walls and rusty chains, to unlock the fearful bars and dark cages and to open up the endless doors to education, freedom,
empowerment and hope.”

When the UW chose a student to receive a Community Service Award last year, they selected Bester because of her tireless activism mentoring children through the Boys and Girls Club, in after-school programs and in the Odyssey childcare rooms each Wednesday night. A mother of six children, Bester will inspire them all as she walks across the stage of the Kohl Center in May to receive her bachelor’s degree in community and nonprofit leadership from UW–Madison. She has applied for graduate school and feels nothing can stop her now.

Other Odyssey graduates have earned degrees, formed foundations, published articles, won awards, run for office, held art exhibits, acted in plays, mentored youth and started careers. “The Odyssey Project allowed me to unwrap my gifts,” wrote one student. Said another, “Odyssey helped me rewrite the story of my life.”

Emily Auerbach is director of the Odyssey Project and an English professor at UW–Madison. For more information on the Odyssey Project, visit odyssey.wisc.edu.

Congrats to the Grads!

On May 8, thirty new students will become proud UW Odyssey Project graduates. Mayor Paul Soglin will be on hand to offer congratulations, and he will listen as each student comes to the podium and shares something from the class. Students who started out the course so shy they could not speak will proudly raise their voices to family members and an audience of several hundred. The event will take place in the Great Hall of the UW’s Memorial Union from 6:30 to 8 p.m. and is open to the public. 

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