The University of Wisconsin has been dedicated to the creation of a learning environment that is accessible to historically underprivileged communities. On campus, the school has sought to increase inclusivity among its student body.

Providing learning communities in residence halls that cater to specific student groups and celebrating diversity in UW’s student body with multicultural recognition events — such as the Ho-Chunk Nation’s flag being raised on Bascom Hill to recognize the ancestral Ho-Chunk land the campus occupies — are just some of the measures taken to appreciate and include all those enrolled at UW.

But UW has also focused its efforts on communities beyond campus. The Odyssey Project was founded in 2003 with the intention of expanding educational opportunities to underrepresented student demographics that have been systematically overlooked by the education system.

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The Odyssey Project focuses primarily on teaching UW humanities courses to adult learners, as inspired in part by Earl Shorris’ Clemente Project. Shorris believed that humanities courses in moral philosophy, art, literature and history would provide “the gateway out of disenfranchisement.”

There are four key programs offered by the project — The Odyssey Course, Onward Odyssey, Odyssey Junior and Odyssey Beyond Bars. About 90% of participants in the Odyssey Project are individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups. 

College is not a feasible option for many individuals in the U.S. The higher education system’s design in our country consistently favors students of high socioeconomic status whose parents have also attended university.

The widening opportunity gap in our higher education system has exacerbated the link between parental income and college-going rates among children, leaving individuals from underrepresented communities with a more complicated path and more barriers to higher learning.

But the creation of the Odyssey Project challenges these gaps head on by recognizing the flaws in the education system and seeking to provide a stepping stone for individuals from these communities to make connections in the academic world. 

Championing the success of the Odyssey Project most recently, the Odyssey Beyond Bars program received special recognition for its success in providing educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals.

This month, the program won the annual Eisenberg Award from Wisconsin State Public Defenders. In a statement, Board Chair James M. Brennan said the program “is giving those incarcerated a chance to expand their minds and explore their opportunities once they return to their communities.” 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics found within three years of release, two out of three people are rearrested and over 50% serve more jail time. This can be easily connected to the lack of social support systems in place for inmates upon their release.

With little to no mechanisms in place to help individuals released from incarceration find a stable career and earn an income, many find themselves unable to escape the “revolving door” phenomenon of recidivism.

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The Prison Scholar Fund found this recidivism is even more pervasive in communities of color. It should come as no surprise the U.S. prison system affects already marginalized communities at a higher rate than those coming from a place of privilege.

A Harvard Political Review article highlighted the need for rehabilitation programs to become the norm as opposed to incarceration. Odyssey Beyond Bars works to achieve this through providing learning opportunities to incarcerated individuals rather than allowing the perpetuation of their punishment by withholding education. The Odyssey Beyond Bars program fuels their odds of success once individuals re-enter society.

With programs like the Odyssey Project, UW is on its way to become a leader in its inclusion initiatives to make college more accessible to a wider student demographic. Last year, the university received over $3 million in endowment  funding for the Odyssey Project, with development director Jenny Pressman noting in a statement that the funds would “help ensure Odyssey’s future.”

What is important now is to continue funding of programs like Odyssey Beyond Bars, not only in Wisconsin, but across the nation. Reforming our prison system in America means giving incarcerated individuals the tools they need to build a life for themselves and education is a key first step.

Fiona Hatch ([email protected]) is a freshman studying political science and international studies.