ATHENA Awards: Emily Auerbach takes coveted honor

Emily Auerbach, a woman who has dedicated her life to helping adult learners overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers to higher education, has won the 2018 ATHENA Award.

Auerbach, founder of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Odyssey Project, which is considered a national poverty-fighting model, received the honor Tuesday evening during the 21st annual ATHENA Leadership Awards Program ceremony at the Madison Concourse Hotel.

Emily Auerbach, 2018 ATHENA Award winner

Formerly known as simply the ATHENA Award program, the women’s leadership program is hosted by The Business Forum and celebrates women who demonstrate excellence and leadership in their professional endeavors, make significant contributions to the community, and help other women reach their leadership potential.

Auerbach founded and directs the Odyssey Project, a free college-level class in the humanities that is offered to adults who have faced severe economic and other barriers to higher education. Now in its 15th year, the program has helped more than 420 adult students who had been shut out of higher education opportunities.

“I’m really moved to have an award that comes from the Business Forum because they for years have given scholarships to students in the UW Odyssey Project, and those scholarships help women go on to school,” Auerbach states. “I’m so grateful for that.”

Auerbach’s passion for helping the poor was shaped by her family’s experience. Her mother came from a destitute family in Appalachia and her father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, barely escaping with his family when he was 10, but both overcame their circumstances with the help of a free education from Berea College in Kentucky.

Auerbach overcome adversity in her own life, raising two small children after her first husband abandoned their family, but she credited her parents’ example as what can happen when people are given a chance. “Especially for my mother, who came from Appalachia and had no running water and arrived at college with one skirt and two shirts and would have had to go home if she had to buy a text book,” she says. “I know that having someone who believed in her and gave her a chance, someone who could provide the opportunity that education gives anyone, that’s huge and it changed our entire family.

“For my father, starting over as an immigrant, that was something extremely important, too, and to have a school that gave them a chance is why I’m so committed to making sure that people here in Madison — people who have gifts and ambitions and motivations and dreams, but no money — have a chance to go to school.”

Their Odyssey

During the first 15 years of the Odyssey Project, 96% of Odyssey’s students were racial minorities, and three-quarters of them were women. Under the tutelage of the Odyssey faculty, students who typically grow up being told they are not “college material” discover that they can read and understand the great works of the humanities and express their interpretations of literature through their own experiences. They learn how to articulately express themselves in voice and writing, and many have gone from homelessness, incarceration, disabilities, or drug addiction to earning college degrees and forging meaningful careers.

Students have talked about Auerbach’s stern and loving embrace, her requirement that they believe in themselves, and how she melds each class into a family with personal qualities such as generosity and empathy. After Auerbach won a social justice award for her work with racial minorities, one Native American student summed up the program’s impact as follows: “The Odyssey Project helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life.”

However, the Odyssey Project is not just a one-off course because Auerbach also developed Onward Odyssey, a series of classes and programs to help Odyssey students continue their education on their own. In addition to a healthy dose of positive reinforcement, the Odyssey staff provides assistance when former students apply for college, student aid, and employment.

Thanks in part to this emersion of support, more than two-thirds of Odyssey students go on to attend college and many have earned associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees on their way to becoming teachers, medical professionals, and business owners.

Auerbach also recognizes the cyclical nature of poverty and believes it takes a two-generation approach to break it. Four years ago, she began an academic enrichment class called Odyssey Junior to serve the children and grandchildren of Odyssey students and alumni. They experience a parallel curriculum and explore the same academic territory as their parents and grandparents.

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Auerbach has spent two decades as an English professor at UW–Madison, where she provided literary outreach to nontraditional students in retirement centers, prisons, and service clubs. For the past 22 years, she has co-hosted Wisconsin Public Radio’s University of the Air program, and she developed an award-winning radio documentary series titled The Courage to Write, which chronicled the struggles of women authors.

But it’s her work with the Odyssey Project that has inspired and impressed others. Christina Wagner, coordinator of Odyssey Junior, nominated Auerbach for the Athena Award because she’s seen her work up close. “Emily is currently my supervisor at the Odyssey Project, but long before she was my supervisor, she was my idol,” Wagner says. “I watched Emily for 12 years while I was a librarian and she improved the lives of people who had really difficult circumstances — economic, social, emotional circumstances — that were preventing them from being able to realize their dreams.”

Umaima Mohammed Saed, a 2015 graduate of the Odyssey Project, received a Business Forum scholarship during the ATHENA awards ceremony. Until four years ago, when she came to the United States, the Iraq native was a refugee in Malaysia, but now she’s is part of Odyssey Junior and pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant. Asked what the Odyssey Project has meant for her life, she not only cited the education in the humanities, but also the English credits she earned and the ongoing support she still receives. “It’s really opened doors for me,” she says.

High bar

The list of 2018 ATHENA Award nominees, all of who have demonstrated an impressive degree of professional accomplishment and community giving, raised the bar for Auerbach. Also nominated were the following Madison-area professional women:

In her acceptance speech, Auerbach was so impressed with this year’s nominees that she suggested the award be shared with them. “I’m just really honored to share the evening with 10 amazing women who are changing the community,” she notes, “and working so hard and with such passion to create a more just world.”

Auerbach also credited the Wisconsin Idea, the conviction that the university should serve the people of the state, for inspiring her work on behalf of people who are traditionally left out. One of the Odyssey students who went up on the stage when Auerbach accepted the ATHENA award was told by a local high school guidance counselor that she was not college material. “She proved in our program that she was definitely college material,” Auerbach notes, “and that just because she was an African-American, it did not mean that she was not college material.”

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