Stories that Consider the Future

Globalization, technology, the aging of the work force… so much is changing, affecting what work will look like in the future. Read stories that reflect on the future of work. What choices and opportunities will young people have? What do we value?

Josephine (refugee from Sudan) graduated from Odyssey in 2008 and from UW in 2012. She’s now in graduate school in the School of Social Work at UW.

Josephine graduated from Odyssey in 2008 and from the UW-Madison in 2012. She’s now in graduate school in the School of Social Work at UW-Madison.

An Odyssey: Charting a Brighter Future through Humanities Education

When thinking about what the future holds, we are all limited by what we perceive to be possible. Whether you grew up with the expectation that you would finish high school, go to college, be a lawyer or a mother, life is never exactly as we imagine it will be.

For over a decade, the UW Odyssey Project has been offering a free college course in the humanities to adults facing adversity of all kinds. The commonality for all the students is that they live in poverty, and that their lives are transformed by the opportunity to study the humanities.

An Educational Adventure

Emily Auerbach is the Project Director for what she calls an “Educational Adventure.” She is a professor of English at UW-Madison whose parents grew up poor and found college the gateway to better lives. In 2003, Emily Auerbach co-founded the Odyssey Project with her Wisconsin Public Radio colleague Jean Feraca. Odyssey students receive not only free tuition and textbooks but also childcare, dinner, and transportation. Graduates of this jumpstart humanities program have moved from homelessness to master’s degrees, from incarceration to meaningful work in the community.

“Uneducated people are bound and stuck without many options.”

In a catalog celebrating the 10 graduating classes of Odyssey students, Auerbach wrote, “Each year I witness and experience a powerful transformation. As I walk into the classroom, 30 anxious faces look at mine. Some have been told they are not college material. Some have served prison time. Some have started college but stopped as the pressures of single parenthood and poverty took their toll. As we start discussing the poetry of William Blake, the Declaration of Independence, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, lives begin to change—mine included.”

The Light that Leads us Out of the Cave

A central text in the UW Odyssey Project is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” In this ancient Greek text, Socrates compares human beings to prisoners in a cave: “We face away from the sunlight, fettered in place, watching illusory shadows of a puppet show on the wall but failing to turn around to see the truth.” The imagery seems to work and students easily make comparisons between Plato’s description and their own caves of drug addiction, domestic abuse, poverty and oppression.

Shurone Johnson, a student in the class of 2010, wrote: “Socrates is saying that some of us lack the education to move forward in our everyday life. Uneducated people are bound and stuck without many options. I apply the Allegory of the Cave to situations of today. It’s very important for parents to have an education… [I]f school wasn’t that important to us, how can we motivate or influence our children to do better in life or better than us? Our kids become enslaved to what’s wrong instead of what’s right. It’s like the blind leading the blind with no destination in sight, no future—at least not a prosperous one.”

“I would never have thought that classes in the humanities would change my life forever.”

The WHC supported the first three years of the Odyssey Project with $10,000 grants annually and has given additional grant support in subsequent years. The transformation for the students, their families, and the city is radical: Odyssey graduates work as police officers, counselors, journalists, teacher aides and nurses. Over two-thirds of the graduates have continued taking college courses, more than two dozen have degrees, and eight have been accepted into graduate programs.

Denise Maddox, from the class of 2004, writes: “I would never have thought that classes in the humanities would change my life forever. I mean forever without exaggeration because writing, art history, American history, literature, and philosophy transported me to a new world, where written words came alive and made magic inside my heart….The transformation had started, and there was no turning back from this course.”

Josephine graduated from Odyssey in 2008 and from the UW-Madison in 2012. She’s now in graduate school in the School of Social Work at UW-Madison.