Published: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 --- 10:15 p.m.
Graduation season is officially upon us. Wednesday night, students who are part of a special program at UW-Madison celebrated their achievements with teachers, family and friends.
The Odyssey Project offers a humanities class for adults near the poverty level. Each year, 30 students receive free tuition, textbooks and childcare. The goal is to give people facing different economic obstacles the same opportunity to go to college.
Most of the people sitting on the stage never thought they'd come close to earning a college degree.
"I lost my brother and I gave up on school and I just let everything go," said Toshiana Northington.
"I got custody of my son when he was one, worked full time, trying to be a single father at that time, and I put school to the side," said Derick McCray.
After years of struggling, Northington and McCray realized the importance of education.
"I decided I needed to make a change in my life because now I have three kids and I know my brother would want me to be successful," Northington said.
"My youngest son passed away a couple years ago, and I made a promise to him that I was going to do something better with my life," McCray said.
The two are part of a growing group of Odyssey Project graduates. Wednesday, they earned six credits from the UW, plus one from Madison College.
"Our students have overcome so many barriers, not just financial, but sometimes they're dealing with depression or domestic abuse or incarceration, unemployment, all kinds of things that could get in the way of getting ahead." Director Emily Auerbach says the support doesn't end with this ceremony.
"We help our graduates keep going all the way to degrees," she said. "So we have students who have moved from being homeless to having Master's degrees."
For Northington, she plans to transfer from MATC to the UW, someday hoping to become a physician's assistant.
McCray is moving to Florida to be closer to his three sons, and finish up his Bachelor's degree in business administration.
"I'm striving to do it not only for myself, but for my kids too," McCray said. "I want them to see that if Dad can do it at the age of 41, I can do it at 18."
"Finally I have achieved something that I can be proud of," Northington said.