On Mother’s Day, we honor the mothers in our lives for the love and dedication that they give to their families. This May, Dominique Smith reaches a milestone in her motherhood journey: she graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Odyssey program. This accomplishment marks the end of Smith’s first step toward becoming the woman that she wants her two daughters to look up to.
The UW Odyssey Project is a two-semester program of weekly classes taught by faculty in English literature, philosophy, American history, and art history. Participants receive free tuition, textbooks, and childcare in the Odyssey Junior program. They also have tutoring available for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren on Monday and Tuesday evenings. Upon completing the program, students earn six credits from UW-Madison as well as enhanced self-confidence and critical thinking skills.
A Madison native and graduate of West High School, 37-year-old Smith came to the Odyssey program after experiencing some hardship. She comes from a large family and describes herself younger self as “a mama’s girl.” Growing up, she played basketball in the Madison Spartans youth basketball league and continued to play through her time at West. Her dreams were to become a lawyer and to play in the WNBA. Despite being only 5’3”, Smith believed that she had skills; “I can shoot like Steph Curry,” she said. But in her junior year of high school, “life happened,” she says, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Smith graduated from West in 2004 and her mother passed away in 2006. Without her mother to lean on, Smith had to support herself, which caused her to put her dreams on hold.
“Odyssey Is a Table
With pillars of support, I remain stable.
Comfortably at this table I am seated,
A little late, but not yet defeated.
I prepare my taste buds and clear my palate,
For this smorgasbord of knowledge for me to grab it.
To appease my chary appetite
I indulgently savor every bite.
As the combinations of flavors communicate,
With the main purpose to educate,
My insecurities you begin to Manipulate,
selflessly providing a lane for me to elevate.
Igniting in me this hunger
so at this table I remain seated a little longer.”
Smith has held many jobs, but she is most proud of her work with young people. She participated in programming at the Boys and Girls Club of Dance County as a child; they gave her her first job at 14. She returned as an adult and worked as a program lead for the teen program and assistant club director. After starting her family, she moved to the Madison Metropolitan School District where she worked as a special education assistant for four years. She is now marking one year in her current position as a restitution counselor at Briarpatch Youth Services.
Although she is satisfied with the youth work that she has been doing, Smith wants more. But she thought that she was too old to pursue her education. “I just wanted to be a mother,” she said, “But I want to be more for my girls. I want to create stability and support for them.” Smith’s daughters, 4-year-old Camilla and 2-year-old Keziah, have motivated her to push herself. After hearing about the Odyssey program, she decided to apply. “I didn’t think I would get in, but I did.” So began a journey of self-discovery and growth.
Smith recalls family and friends commenting on her unique ability to express herself in writing, but she did not give it attention. However, the Odyssey program ignited her passion for writing. “I live for writing!” she exclaimed. Smith jumped in with both feet last September when she entered one of her poems in a creative writing contest focused on persuading people to vote. Not only did she win first place, but she became a published author when her poem was featured in The Capital Times. Since then, she has continued writing poetry and volunteers to write content for the monthly newsletter for Dane County Youth Justice. While she was once reluctant to share her writing, Smith is now eager to share her words with others thanks to the feedback from program advisors.
But Smith is not the only person in her household who is growing through Odyssey. Camilla and Keziah love attending Odyssey Junior and wish they could go every day. Keziah is reciting her ABCs. Camilla, who is normally shy and quiet, has become more talkative and comfortable being social with other children. “I love to see them blossoming,” Smith said.
Dr. Emily Auerbach, professor of English and Executive Director of the UW Odyssey Project, is excited for the 30 graduates in this year’s cohort and recognizes Smith’s progress. She says: “I have loved watching Dominique unwrap her gifts and find her voice. Her poems and essays show incredible intelligence, creativity, and vision.”
Smith counts participating in the Odyssey program as one of the best decisions in her life, but it was not without challenge. When her children were ill, she could not bring them to Odyssey Junior so she had to stay home with them if she could not find alternative childcare. She was also concerned about losing time with her children while focusing on her studies. “I don’t want them to miss out on time with me, but I want to create more for them.” The Odyssey program supports parents by allowing them to attend classes virtually when needed and offering dinner on class nights so that students do not have to miss dinner time with their children.
Smith recommends Odyssey to anyone who has experienced things that have slowed or halted their progress. She describes herself as an Odyssey recruiter because she knows the power of word of mouth. Smith believes that anyone who wants better for themselves and has passion and determination but needs support to reach their goals will be successful.
Song of Dominique
I Am Dominique,
A body of water touching the shores of Africa
To the Ports of the “America” we seek.
A descendant of Jacob, the daughter of George and Marie
This is what made me.
I Am a woman
Learning what to be.
Loved, respected, supported and critiqued
Finding the true meaning of what is Dominique
I Am a Mother,
Protectively nurturing a legacy
To grow prosperously beyond the parts of me.
To carry on with lyrics
I sing sweetly to thee.
I Am a sister
The youngest of three.
Navigating our own lives
While maintaining as Family.
I Am this song
Crescendoing through life’s obstacles
Adapting to the tone changes.
Finding the correct note
While exploring my octave ranges.
I Am Dominique and She is is me
I sing this song Of mines Proudly.
Smith will celebrate her May graduation with her girls and with friends from her cohort and their families. In the future, Smith wants to continue her education and possibly become a licensed teacher. She wants to continue to share her writing gift through poetry and a collection of children’s books (she has already contacted a publisher). She also wants to start a non-profit providing comprehensive housing, education, life skills, and health services to youth and young adults ages 13-25. She wants to provide them a safe, stable environment where they can pursue their interests constructively. She believes that Madison is missing this type of proactive programming and supportive environment for this age group. “I had that growing up,” she said, “and I want to give it to them.”
When asked what would summarize her learning over this year, Smith offers, “Talent without hard work is only potential.” She explained that one can have so much talent that they may not even be aware of, but none of that matters if they don’t dedicate themselves to making sure that talent is used.
Ultimately, Smith is most concerned about the model that she is providing for her daughters. “I want them to see mom the professional, mom the non-profit CEO, and mom the author. I want to be that walking role model for them.” She is well on her way.