Colleen Johnson: Helping people achieve the college dream

By Lisa Schuetz

People with low incomes face barriers that make college feel unattainable. It may be lack of childcare, fear of rejection, fear of navigating a complex system or the belief they won’t be given a fair chance.

As director of development and community partnerships at the UW Odyssey Project, Colleen Johnson helps adults and children reconnect with their dreams—and that’s vital for Dane County’s economy.

“I really believe that to strengthen a community, you have to start with the people who live there, especially the economically disadvantaged and people of color,” says Johnson, who earned her graduate degree in Urban and Regional Planning at UW-Madison.

The Odyssey Project, an award-winning program at UW-Madison, has helped more than 400 adults and 100 children believe in their ability to go to college. This year, Johnson is raising money to support the program’s growth, including a plan to expand it to the state’s prison system. She also plans to share the model with other universities.

The core program enrolls 30 adults in a two-semester, six-credit curriculum covering English literature, philosophy, American history and art history. The program provides childcare, tutors, financial coaches and more. But the real results are much broader.

“Almost 90 percent of our participants say they vote because they’re empowered to use their voice,” Johnson says. “And 97 percent say their participation in the adult program helps them support their children in school.”

Keena Atkinson is among the 24 percent who go on to earn a degree or certificate. She came to the Odyssey Project like most do—hearing about it from a program graduate. Just 10 years ago, she was a single mother and homeless. Now, after graduating from UW-Madison with a psychology degree, she runs her own business as a health and wellness coach, writer and speaker.

“Before I was just living to exist. Now I live with purpose every day,” says Atkinson.

In 2019 Johnson’s goal is to help more Odyssey alumni attain degrees like Atkinson did. A vital component is creating a community for success.

“Often people don’t find a community of other working parents who face similar obstacles and are succeeding,” says Johnson. “We have drop-in tutoring two nights a week, celebrations, picnics, a Facebook group, a clinical social worker, academic counselor and financial advisers. It’s like nurturing a family.”

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