In fall 2018, the second offering of Augsburg University’s River Semester program spent 100 days traveling down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to Memphis while offering a full semester of college courses in a range of disciplines. The program is itself an experiment in low-carbon high-impact education, with the students on most days consuming a small fraction of the power and emitting almost no carbon emissions, while immersed in multidisciplinary inquiry of the Mississippi River, its watershed, and river communities. The program takes seriously the need for a radical change in our socio-economy system to respond to the global challenge of climate change. It seeks an authenticity not typically experienced in higher education, where most institutions may study climate change, but rarely make the significant changes needed to address climate change in their daily practices. The River Semester attempts to lead by example and model for students what a post-carbon society might look like, by living a very low-carbon life. On the river, the transportation and labor is human-powered, with attendant benefits in physical fitness, mental health, and a sense of independence.
As of 2018, the River Semester is now a regular part of the programming offered by Augsburg’s Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE). River Semester will run annually in the Fall, allowing both Augsburg students and students from CGEE’s partner institutions to enroll on the program. Students that are interested can review the program brochure and online application at our website.
Diversity in an outdoor education setting
In contrast to earlier expeditions, the 2018 cohort of students was a diverse group, consisting of 15 undergraduate students, two field staff/supplemental instructors, and two faculty (one in Political Science/Environmental Studies and the other in Biology). The group included seven students of color (3 Latina, 1 African-American, 2 American Indian, and 1 Asian), one transgender, and three gender non-conforming students. All but two students were from Augsburg University; one was from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and another from Dickinson College.
Reflecting this diversity, discussions and student interests were focused more on issues of race, equity, and environmental justice. This was reflected in the independent study projects chosen by the students and the site visits and discussion topics taken up by the group. The diversity likewise provided significant opportunities for learning from and about the diverse perspectives and life experiences of the group. Participants were all made more aware of the various ways in which race, class, and gender can present barriers to engagement with environmental issues and outdoor education, and the ways that these barriers can be overcome. Those discussions informed some of the decisions around revising the itinerary and program design. Drawing on these discussions and lessons, in 2019 the program will engage in more initial orientation to raise, and help address, the concerns of those coming from different cultural backgrounds and life experiences. Given the importance and interest in these issues, there will also be more of a focus on race relations, equity, and environmental justice in the readings, courses, and discussion topics.
Curricular and extra-curricular learning
Students came from a range of majors and programs, and elected to take a wide variety of the courses available. As such, some amount of flexibility and virtual supervision was required for certain projects. The 2019 program will see a simplified set of course offerings and a streamlined curriculum and set of readings to allow the whole group to engage in that learning and discussion together.
The 2018 cohort of students’ included students majoring in:
- Environmental Studies
- International Relations
- Political Science
- Psychology (Clinical Psychology)
The River Semester curriculum draws on critical, democratic, and place-based pedagogy, which allowed students significant input into the structure of the program. Much of the learning on the trip takes place outside of formal class activities and in addition to their coursework, the students in the program engaged in a wide range of activities, including:
- paddling over 500 miles, including several days when it was snowing or below freezing
- planning, shopping for, and cooking almost all the meals, and doing all the dishes; (including slaughtering, cleaning, and cooking their own turkey for Thanksgiving dinner!)
- managing the library, IT needs, and shared resources of the group
- setting up camp, rain tarps, solar panels, and latrines along the way
- helping make some of the arrangements for site visits, libraries to study in, laundromats, showers, and churches to sleep in
- hosting an international contingent of guests, including some of the world’s foremost water experts
- sending in their absentee ballots in the 2018 election
- gaining greater discernment of their vocations: as educators, lawyers, historians, field scientists, farmers, and policy analysts
- writing dozens and dozens of thank you cards to the “River Angels” that helped the group along the way
- sampling nine different streams and sorting thousands of benthic macroinvertebrates
- observing Yom Kippur in the sanctuary of a Lutheran church in Trempealeau
- carrying thousands of pounds of gear to countless campsites and back to the canoes
- engaging in political actions and connected with various environmental and social justice groups and activists along the way
- holding numerous group meetings and supported and advocated for and worked with each other in a way that was quite remarkable and which reflected their care for each other, and ability to work through differences in a way that bodes well for their life in community in the days ahead.
In sum, this group of students bonded and shared an experience that they will almost certainly take with them, in deep and profound ways, for the rest of their lives.
Student Reflections from 2018
“I learned that my education came from my experience rather than solely writing papers and reading books, although they provided context for my experiential learning. I feel as though my education was comprehensive in that my courses on the river were not separate, they fed into each other and they never stopped, I was continuously learning all day everyday on the river. I learned about my surroundings and myself simultaneously.”
“It was difficult to balance chores, canoe, stay warm, and do schoolwork, and maintain good mental health, but through all of this I realized that I can really do anything.”
“I feel incredibly empowered by the program. For the first time in a long time I am beginning to realize I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. I actually feel like I can travel almost anywhere and can do almost anything. I also feel as though I have found my voice and figured out what exactly I want from my life.”
One student expressed their connection to the river in this poem:
We are the river
that we began our paddling
and ended it
at a confluence?
to stay together
after we finished–
we did not
our cozy cabin.
the constantly flowing,
changing, wild, calm,
beautiful connected rivers
within us all.
“Compared to the average student on Augsburg University campus, I can state that my experiences on the River Semester have accounted for my endurance, flexibility, and resilience skills to be more well-rounded and adaptable to changes.”
“This trip has taught me adaptability and has shown me how resilient I really am. I also did not expect living in a community to be difficult. I am very adaptable to personalities, so I thought it would be fun all the time. I was wrong. Living in community takes a lot of patience and open communication with each other. This trip has shown me my strength, resilience, and adaptability.”
“Learning is what I did almost every day I was on the trip. Whether it be learning how to cook something different all the way to learning to stern a voyageur canoe. It was lesson after lesson. We also explored a lot, and this was soul filling. What I mean by this is that I found nature to be healing. I was dealing with a lot emotionally and mentally. Every day we were on the water and the sun shined on our faces, I felt hopeful and was ready to conquer whatever came my way. It gave me a new sense of self. I learned a lot about myself and what I was capable of and how strong I was.”
“To see all the ways we have grown and learned both individually and as a family was both encouraging and inspiring. The lessons of gratitude rang true for myself and my fellow River Kids. Now, almost more than ever, I am excited to see where life takes me and my peers and I’m excited to see what we do. We all have unique perspectives, but now we’ve all had the powerful and formative experience that was river semester to influence us on our paths ahead. I am so thankful for the wisdom I was able to glean from them.”