Celebration held in Memorial Union’s Great Hall
By Pamela Gates
The University of Wisconsin Odyssey Project, a beginning college course in the humanities for people with financial barriers to higher education, graduated its 10th class last Wednesday. All 30 students in this year’s class earned six college credits in the humanities, taking their first step in their higher education.
The celebration was, as always, ecstatic. Hugs, whoops, and hollers were plenty, and the applause was frequent and enthusiastic. “It’s the goal of Odyssey to help men and women overcome obstacles and achieve dreams,“ said project director Emily Auerbach. “We’ve survived blizzards, car accidents, hip fractures, diseases, mental illnesses, surgeries, and deaths and crises of loved ones. We got beaten up, knocked up, broken up, broken down, locked up, laid off and evicted … but as Langston Hughes titled one of his poems, we’re ‘still here.’”
Auerbach introduced Mayor Paul Soglin, who stated that never had he been in this room surrounded by so many dedicated scholars. He emphasized the need for access — to quality child care, transportation, health care, job training, and above all education, which gives us appreciation for who we are and who we share space with. Eliminating poverty and ignorance is a daunting task, he said, but it is within our reach. The efforts of educators, students, and those who give them support can bring about real change in lives. Imagination is not owned by the elite: No matter what a person’s background, if there is dedication, creativity comes.
Auerbach thanked all those who had donated time or money to Odyssey over the past year and then turned the stage over to the graduates, each of whom presented an original piece or something s/he’d found especially meaningful during the course. Here we present a brief introduction to each graduate, taken from either the graduation presentation or the graduation program notes as space permits.
Jasmine Banks: “Now is the time to set my mind free … My journey is unrealistic, some may deem. Once at the top is when I will scream, ‘Only the educated are free!’ That includes me!” About Odyssey she said: “How … or why I ended up in Emily’s office, only God truly knows. But if you ask me, it’s because I am meant to do great things, and the Odyssey Project is an enormous piece in my journey of getting there.”
Lewis Black read his poem “My Classmates Are My Teammates.” About Odyssey he said: “A year ago, I was a lost boy trying to find a way to get through life… I almost gave up. Now I am sitting in this class surrounded by so many great people … This has been the best year of my life so far … My mind is much more open … My family is so proud of me for the way I’ve turned my life around, and I am, too.”
Tanatnan Chaipang: “Odyssey is an adventure class … The way the … tables are set up … makes me feel like we’re really together, but the way we study, it’s so filled with wild, open, and free ideas. My life is always an adventurous road, and the Odyssey Project is the adventure project that I’m so proud to be part of.” Chaipang, who came to the U.S. in 2006, said she felt Odyssey was “a big move forward in my life.”
Tracey Cherry: “I am a mother of four and grandmother to ten. I am very shy … I always wanted to return to school … Emily especially … has given me inspiration not to quit through my sickness, homelessness situations, anxiety and depression. With classmates and other professors, this has gotten me through to the end . I am very happy Emily chose me and that my daughters, Shaunta, Tyrea, and Julia, stuck by me.”
Eunice Conley: “In Odyssey I have found a voice that I used to have … I have found that I can be worth listening to. In Odyssey we are a close-knit family. It allows me to relax and find my calm place, and things just come! … I’ve begun to like me and realize that I do have the qualities my family is so proud of.” Conley read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” at the graduation: “’What happens to a dream deferred?…’”
China Moon Crowell: “There were times during these past eight months that I felt overwhelmed, but I used that as further motivation to press on … I say to the Class of 2014: … Attend every class, listen attentively, reread the week’s lesson to keep it fresh in your mind, and read anything and everything you can get your hands on … You were chosen for this program for a reason … It‘s your move now. Make it count.”
Angelica Cuahuey read “Song of Angelica” in both Spanish and English: “I am an intelligent woman … I had encounters with numerous obstacles in life. I am a friend, sister, mother, and partner who cares, loves, and respects others, who believes education is the path to success, who doesn’t get flustered, … taking care of children, house, and responsibilities, … I choose to be knowledgeable, with dreams of a better future …”
Akilah Freeman: “I am a book, a masterpiece, ready to be understood, elucidated, decoded, a modern day spoof of Red Riding Hood. The wolf is approaching, or maybe society’s always attempting an attack. No goodies and no granny will save me, but my family and my Odyssey got my back … An allegory, my story, a memoir waiting to be told … pay attention and keep your focus … what’s coming next will be in bold!”
Sharisse Hancock: “I have a dream that one day this world will not judge others by their outward appearance but by the beauty within their hearts, minds and souls … that one day this world will credit me for my lovely, outgoing personality … that I will not forget this journey called Odyssey and the door it has opened, enabling me to see that I can achieve greatness in my educational future which lies ahead …”
Dominique Haskins read “Song of Dominique”: “I am who I am. Don’t try to change me or rearrange me, accept me for the person I am. I cannot be boxed up. I have to spread my wings and fly. I am timid at times, but comfortable in my skin. I am a dreamer and adventurer. I am who I am. I celebrate myself. Who else will?” About Odyssey she said: “I was very nervous … but … the Odyssey Project has changed my life!”
Shalonda Hilliard-Jones: My father was adopted by a white woman and man. Most of my childhood, I felt as if I was in a cave, somewhat embarrassed to have white grandparents … it was hard for me to go out in public and have people stare and mumble at me (Why is that little black girl with those white people?) … I’m 25 now, and I feel like I have come to the light because I don’t care what people have to say about it…”
Fantasia House read “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou: “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise … Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise, Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise … Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise, Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear … I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise.”
Angela Jordan-Jackson dedicated her reading of “Mother to Son” (Langston Hughes) to her son, whom she had at 15: “Well, son, I‘ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, and splinters, and boards torn up … but all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on, and reaching’ landin’s, and turnin’ corners, and sometimes goin’ in the dark…So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps…”
Carrie Llerena Sesma: “Odyssey has opened my eyes to things I have not experienced before, such as meeting new friends that are full of knowledge, ideas, and so interested in education, coming from where I’m from, and encouraging each other to push toward a better future … I was intimidated by college before, thinking it wasn’t for me after two unsuccessful attempts. This time was success! Now I know I can!”
Derrick McCann read from “A Raisin in the Sun” (Lorraine Hansberry): “Travis, in 10 years things is going to be very different with us. I’ll come home from my office downtown somewhere and I’ll be pretty tired ‘cause an executive’s life is hell, man. And I’ll pull the car up on the driveway … and go up to your room … And I’ll say, all right son … you’ve decided? … You just name it, son, and I hand you the world!”
Mary Millon read “Song of Mary”: “This lady … is a daughter, mother, sister, wife, cousin, friend, and even an enemy … This lady has been a caretaker, patient, student, worker, psychologist, lawyer, and baker. Some days this lady finds it hard to find herself with so many hats to wear … She is scared by little yet terrified by much … This lady shines from the inside out, but is invisible to some … that lady is me.”
James Morgan read a poem from central Congo: “Body, Mind, Spirit. We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” He also read from the “Life of Frederick Douglass”: “It was against the law to teach a slave to read … I now understood … the white man’s power to enslave the black man … From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom [and] … set out … to learn how to read.”
Lolita Phillips read her poem “I’m No Longer Deferred”: Don’t be afraid to move. Just keep it movin’, Is it da’ fear again? Just tell fear to move! And keep it movin’, You gonna get far. You’ll see, you’ll be like me: No longer deferred.” About Odyssey she said: “On my Odyssey journey, I have been appreciated, loved, and looked up to … not belittled, ridiculed, hated on, or disrespected … I am encouraged to speak out …!”
Jovenus Price Pierce read “Song of Jovenus”: “One day soon I will rise up. I can’t tell you the day, the hour, or the month. I will rise up. So many times in my life I have been attacked, lied to, and hit, but I will rise up. People have made me feel as if I am different from the rest of the world. But I will rise up. I know Jesus died on the cross, and he rose up. I know one day soon … I will rise up … I will RISE, RISE, RISE.”
Jovite Rayaisse read “Song of Jovite” in English and French: “I am an African woman, proud to be. I came from a small country, Burkina Faso, with 63 dialects. Proud to be a woman with five languages … I cannot be lost in any African country. I am a rare pearl, like my name ‘Jovite’, joyful, smiley, no matter what, I am an open hand to whoever comes.” Jovite says she is no longer afraid to speak loudly in front of people!
Michelle Reams: “Constantly in motion like a spinning top, spinning, spinning not quite out of control. … Spiraling down low because I never can say no. I see so much of what is needed; it is easy for me if I just feed it. Nourishing the needed is good … but a woman needs more than nourishment to feed her soul. I have to get off this circuit. I am becoming dizzy and dazed … I might just have to change my spinning ways.”
Britney Sinclair: “I love the woman I became, the progress that I’ve made, the secrets and lies I overcame. I feel light, as I swiftly dance off my feet. I feel sound, as I listen to the rhythm from the streets. I feel whole, as my heart is no longer dead. Was misplaced…broken…uncertain, was deprived…starving…caved … Now spirited…complete…at peace, now revived…full…opened. Found so much within myself …”
Patrice Smith read “Locked Up”: “Women of different colors, backgrounds, beliefs… Women who share the same hurts, brokenness, and grief. A woman’s body may be locked up, but not her mind, for even a Lifer has the ability to dream beyond her physical state … Once a woman walks through those gates, she finds relief in making herself a clean slate.” Odyssey gave her “a chance I would never have given myself.”
Amber Turner: “We are all a part of a picture, a picture that has different pieces yet fits as one in a single frame. Without one piece, we are not complete. Without the entire equation, you will never find the solution. Missing pieces will always make us incomplete. To be whole, we need to be as one: a part of a picture in a single frame.” She said Odyssey “has my back no matter what“; it is building her as a person.
Nancy Wambua read in English and Swahili: “I am a river, free and flowing from one place to the other … The obstacles are all over, and i can’t tell what tomorrow will bring. I am a long, long river from which there is no return, and I can’t find a destination where I can feel that everything is all right … I do hope that one day i will get through and accept who i am and where i will be, for life is what you make of it.”
Tosumba Welch: “Thanks to my professors, classmates, and the material we read together, I can truly say that I have escaped the cave of ignorance. Odyssey has led me to a never-ending journey of life and a limitless road to higher education. I will close with some words of Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘…I still have a dream…that one day this nation will live out the true meaning of its creed … Let freedom ring! …”
Munroe Whitlock read his editorial “Black Boys Shouldn’t Have Targets on Their Backs”: African American males are dropping out of school at an alarming rate. By the mid-1970s and 1980s, it was more common for a black boy to drop out of school than to graduate. Police officers …began to target black boys and charge them with crimes they did not commit … Yes, there is a target on the backs of black boys …”
Brandon Williams read “Advice” by Langston Hughes: Folks, I’m telling you, Birthing is hard and Dying is mean So get yourself some loving in between.” About Odyssey he said: “I thought falling down is how you grow and staying down is how you are. Joining the Odyssey was the best thing this confused child could do. We all have been through something … Embrace your struggle and choose a better life.”
El-Rasheedah Wilson: The Odyssey Project has brought me to new heights. It has shown me that I can do and be whatever I want to be, with hard work and determination. I … have always had goals and dreams but didn’t know how to reach them. Now I have the knowledge and I’ve don the footwork to help myself become a better person … I’m not stopping here. I’m going to enroll in college and finish what I started …”
Michelle Whitman read “God’s Jigsaw Puzzle”: Life has its many interruptions, mine. Like a jigsaw puzzle with … irregular pieces, distractions … My life image comes together, no longer in pieces but very well connected … So delicately placed upon God’s canvas, with the pieces together, I begin to thrive … No piece to this puzzle is the same, yet they interlock … Not one piece alone can ever define who I am …”
Whitman then invited all the staff to stand as part of the “Odyssey Puzzle” and especially acknowledged Auerbach with a poem she had written about “Emily Angel.” The class then presented Auerbach with an angel stature to symbolize their feelings for her.