Molinda Henry beamed out at the boisterous crowd last night at Memorial Union for the Odyssey Project's graduation ceremony. Henry is a 48-year-old mother of two who, like all Odyssey students, had struggled with economic hardship.
"Before this class, I didn't consider myself a reader," she told the gathering. "And now I can't wait to get my hands on the next book!"
The crowd cheered delightedly. Henry was one of nearly 30 students graduating from Odyssey, a UW-Madison program that offers a free humanities course to economically disadvantaged individuals. The students, many of whom have only a G.E.D. or high school diploma, attend class once a week for nine months. They read classical literature, study art and write their own poetry. At the end of the course, they earn 6 credits at UW. Many of them, including Henry, plan to attend college full-time.
Lt. Gov. Barb Lawton gave the commencement address, but her words were upstaged by the program's students. One by one, they each read a poem they had studied in class or written themselves. Former Madison Ald. Brian Benford read a poem he'd written called "The Life of Brian," which detailed his struggles with poverty and as a single father. Other students read essays about grandparents, teachers or relatives who inspired them.
But the one who brought down the house was 71-year-old Juanita Wilson. She'd always told her children and grandchildren that "college is mandatory," but never felt she was smart enough to go herself. She cried as she addressed the crowd.
"Before Odyssey, I always felt like an outsider," Wilson said. "I now feel like I can contribute to the conversation and am no longer a slow learner. I feel blessed."
Her classmates could relate.