Despite battling COVID, deaths of loved ones, homelessness, domestic abuse, parenting stress, lost wages, and physical and mental health challenges, the UW-Madison Odyssey Class of 2021 beat the odds. 

Thirty-five students graduated in a virtual ceremony on May 5, sharing complex works of literature, philosophy, history, and works of art. As the first graduating class to complete both semesters of Odyssey online, these inspiring students were cheered on with widespread community support to celebrate their tremendous success. 

“All of us are here tonight to celebrate the amazingly resilient and courageous Class of 2021, as they earn jumpstart credits in the humanities from one of the top universities in the world, the UW Madison,” said Emily Auerbach, co-director/founder of UW Odyssey Project. “The students that you’re going to meet tonight will soon join our nearly 500 alumni in changing the world. 

“Graduates of our program have journeyed from homelessness to bachelor’s and master’s degrees; from incarceration to meaningful work in the community; from shyness to powerful self-expression. Now they hold public office, serve on the UW Board of Regents, are on the front lines as nurses. They are publishing books and directing plays in Chicago. Our alumni are amazing and we’re so proud of them,” Auerbach added.

Amid their studies, nine students contracted COVID-19 and many lost loved ones who succumbed to the virus. Others endured domestic abuse, gun violence, depression, financial hardship, and tremendous stress from parenting or grand parenting during a pandemic. 

The award-winning Odyssey Project takes a whole family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, giving adult and youth learners a voice, and increasing confidence through reading, writing, and speaking.

Now in its 18th year, this inspirational project has empowered more than 500 low-income adults to find their voices and get a jump start at earning college degrees they never thought possible. In this six-credit English literature course, UW-Madison faculty members introduce adults to great works of literature, philosophy, history, and art and help them improve skills in writing and critical thinking.  In class, students read, write about, and engage in lively discussions of Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Lorraine Hansberry, and more.  

Class List 2021

Betsy Alfaro

Tawania Alston

Calvin Balentine

Sarina Benford

Souad Bidar

Anjelica Brown

Tisha Butler

Cashae Davis

Paris Foster

Fernando Galindo

Sarah Galinski

Erika Gonzales

Valeria Gordon

Bresha Green

Melissa Herriges

Kwan Hogan

Henry Irisson

Jessica Jacobs

Brianna Johnson

Yvonne Johnson

Feather Lloyd

Farren McDonald

Michelle McKoy

Stephaney Obi

Asia Pearson

Burnett Reed

Delisha Smith

Krystal Smith

Thedora Smith

Dana Stokes

Faleshuh Walker

Sunni Walker

Diane Walton

Keyanna Wilson

Shiquita Woods

*** Fernando Galindo and Krystal Smith completed fall semester only (three credits) and the rest earned six credits. Diane Walton tragically died a week later in hospice care of Stage 4 lung cancer, but was able to enjoy watching graduation from her bed at Agrace Hospice Care. A “Diane Walton Resiliency Award” in her memory is being planned to be awarded to one graduate in each future class who displays extraordinary resilience in the face of tremendous adversity.  “She epitomized lifelong learning as she logged on for class from Meriter Hospital with oxygen tubes in her nose and the sound of beeping monitors,” according to Emily Auerbach, co-director/founder of UW Odyssey Project.