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Woman on an Odyssey: Dane County

The UW’s Odyssey Project helps open doors for nontraditional students.

July 22, 2016
Keena Atkinson reads psychology

Keena Atkinson ’15 knows what it means to persevere. Before she became a UW-Madison graduate and was recruited by a major corporation, she was a homeless, single mother. What changed her life trajectory? Many things, including Atkinson’s hard work and inner drive to change her life for the better. Another factor was the UW Odyssey Project.

“The Odyssey Project opened doors for me,” says Atkinson. “It helped me to believe in myself.”

The Odyssey Project helps men and women living near the poverty level to find their voices and get a jump-start on earning their college degrees and finding meaningful work in their communities. Often, Odyssey Project participants are dealing with addiction, incarceration, depression, or other barriers to education. Participants receive free tuition, textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner.

The Odyssey Project opened doors for me. It helped me to believe in myself.

With a child to care for and the child’s father serving a 10-year prison term, support from the Odyssey program was essential to giving Atkinson a start. She loved being in a classroom again.

“Toward the end of the Odyssey program, I realized that I didn’t want to be done with school,” she says. That’s when she made a decision to find a way to get a degree at UW-Madison.

Despite her determination to earn her degree, Atkinson knew that her top priority needed to be her son. So, first she went back to school to earn a cosmetology degree to ensure that she would have a job that could support her family while she pursued her college education. Then she began her path toward a bachelor’s degree by enrolling at Madison Area Technical College, later transferring to UW-Madison. That is where the real challenge began.

“I didn’t really have a social life at the UW,” she said. “Everyone’s between 18 and 22.” But, Atkinson eventually found a community on campus at Wisconsin’s Equity & Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB).

“That’s where I met the people who were interested in the same issues I was interested in,” she says. “I could talk about things freely with white people and black people. I never had a chance to have those conversations before.”

Through the many hours of work, finding childcare, working, and figuring out ways to finance college, Atkinson kept a profound sense of gratitude for her college experience. “I just appreciate everything I did to earn that degree,” she says. “I earned it, and I’m so proud of it.”

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