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From a small-town book club to paddling the Mississippi River, learning gets bigger outside the classroom



Experiential education immerses students in a nuanced world

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Just outside Hallock, Minnesota, in the skies that stretch above dormant sugar beet fields, charged solar particles meet the earth’s magnetic shield, exciting those atoms into the awe that is the aurora borealis.

It’s a collision of energy that delights anyone observing, each drawn to its light for reasons both obvious and intensely personal.

Maybe it’s poetry, or maybe it’s providence.

But the meeting of seemingly opposing forces is creating something spectacular in other parts of this border town, too. The magic is made of one cup of coffee, one shared car ride, one page at a time. Here, a book club brings rural community members and urban college students together, meeting each person wherever they are and challenging them to think differently. The book club is one of a number of experiential learning opportunities offered at Augsburg University that put into practice just what it means to pursue one’s calling and build a meaningful life and career.

Removing obstacles

Participants from the book club talk at a local business in Hallock, Minnesota. (Courtesy photo)

What’s become known as the Anti-Racist Book Club began as the brainchild of Augsburg alumni and Hallock residents Kristin Eggerling ’89 and Paul Blomquist ’88. For some time, the couple had been hosting a club, welcoming their neighbors into discussions of social justice issues. But the group grew to include current Auggies when Timothy Pippert, the Joel Torstenson Endowed Professor of Sociology, began reminiscing about a pre-pandemic writing retreat that gave him time for thought and reflection.

“I started talking to Darcey [Engen ’88] about it, about how I missed it, and she said, ‘You need to meet two of my friends,’” Pippert said.

Engen, professor and chair of the Augsburg theater department and founder of the theater company Sod House, helped get all the parties involved in conversation. Eggerling—a writer, editor, and community activist—found comfort and friends at the Hallock library when she first moved to the town after working for a time in the Twin Cities. Hallock is where Blomquist grew up, and where he returned after college to run his family’s Ford dealership after his father’s unexpected death. Their Augsburg experience was imprinted on them on an almost cellular level, and it eventually led to them celebrating things in Hallock that some overlook or take for granted, while also asking critical questions and inviting others in the community to engage in challenging conversations.

When Pippert heard of the couple’s work, it wasn’t long before he asked if the group could join them.

The couple said yes. With that, planning began in earnest. What book? When? Who will be involved? How? The cumulative efforts of that organizing came together with a Fall 2021 trip, funded by Board of Regents member Mark S. Johnson ’75, that brought the city-dwelling students to the small country community that sits within 20 miles of the Canadian border.

Welcome to Hallock, population 981.

Student group poses in front of a wall with a City of Hallock mural
The book club students and faculty members left the Twin Cities to visit Hallock, Minnesota. (Courtesy photo)

“One of the things we were trying to do was to focus not just on the anti-racism theme, but to explore the urban and rural divide. Many of our students don’t really have a sense of what it’s like to live in or know many people who come from a town of 900 people,” Pippert said.

Conversely, folks who’ve spent their entire lives in and near a place where Friday night is synonymous with fish fry don’t necessarily understand why someone would want to live in a place where a high school can be larger than their entire community.

“When it comes to this idea between urban and rural, there’s a big divide in lots of ways,” Engen said. “Yes, of course, there are often issues around race, but there are economic issues, too. And in greater Minnesota, there are people who are struggling and need resources, the same as in the Twin Cities.”

What’s more, Engen said, specialty skill sets aren’t simply the purview of urbanites. Visiting a small farming community, and actually communicating with the residents there, is a great reminder that gifts and talents are universally distributed.

The group of Augsburg students and faculty visited a local business in Hallock, Minnesota. (Courtesy photo)

“To not forget there are artists, writers, sociologists, lawyers in greater Minnesota, all over the state—people who are born in the Twin Cities don’t think about that,” Engen said.

Being exposed to new ideas affects how a person thinks, maybe just for that moment. But sometimes the experience informs a lifetime.

Lydia Rikkola ’22 grew up in Minnesota’s cities and their suburbs.

There were some stereotypes about rural Minnesota that she expected to see when the book club visitors took a tour of Hallock. Rikkola doubted there would be much racial and ethnic diversity, and she was right: Census data confirms 96% of Hallock residents are white.

“It’s very homogenous,” Rikkola said. “But some of the things that surprised me were how open-minded and aware some of the community members were. The woman who runs the food shelf … just to see her passion about social justice and the need for food, that food insecurity is in more places than just the Twin Cities. That was really cool to see her acknowledge that and do everything in her power to address it. It was incredible to see that kind of attention and care and detail.”

‘It became about the meal’

The evening of the group’s tour in Hallock and conversations with various community members, Eggerling and Blomquist invited the whole book club to their house for dinner.

It’s hard to be intimidating when you’re eating.

“Everyone becomes a little more vulnerable and willing to share themselves,” Eggerling said. “We were sharing food and stories, laughing at our cat. It wasn’t rushed; we were able to talk about a variety of things. Some really great connections did come about.”

Engen agreed.

“Yes, absolutely, it became about the meal.”

People sat on the floor, on the couch—wherever an open space presented itself. And the easy environment meant everyone had a chance to just breathe, relax, and reflect.

“I’ll never forget the dinner we had,” Rikkola said. “There were like 30 people stuffed in this house. It was buffet style, and the hosts were so kind as to pay attention to the fact that some of us are vegan, and it was a real home-cooked meal.

“The conversations were so rich. The adults in the room were so interested in seeing us grow, and we talked about everything—politics, social issues, life issues.” The following morning, the group all returned to the Eggerling-Blomquist home for much-needed coffee and a hot breakfast, before a planned tour of the town’s school.

“During part of that morning conversation, one of the students said, ‘I thought all you folks in small towns were hicks and racists’—they voiced that, they felt comfortable sharing that. And that started some really good conversations,” Pippert said.

Taking students out of the classroom and trying something somewhat unknown takes a bit of a leap of faith, Pippert said.

“There are things you can’t control with it, certainly. One of the things we were really cognizant of was that we didn’t want to put students in a position of teaching; it’s not their responsibility to teach the folks up there, and it’s not those folks’ responsibility to teach the students—it has to be about relationships.

“It took us a while to realize that’s where the real work is and the real opportunity: in those relationships. Meeting people who aren’t anything like yourself, and talking and learning not only on the big issues of race, but on all things: Where do you eat in a town that size? How far away is the nearest hospital? The value of experiential learning is that it can be confusing, and it can be scary, rewarding, fulfilling, and life-changing.”

Rikkola said she’s proof of that.

“Through conversation comes growth. It’s so easy to ‘other’ but going on a trip like this stops the ‘othering,’ because the ‘other’ is feeding you, the ‘other’ is caring for you, the shared humanity breaks down barriers,” Rikkola said. “They explain their perspective, and you explain yours and really listen.

“Getting taken out of your environment is so necessary. If you only have friends with the same opinions you’re never challenged, you can’t really learn; you won’t grow.”

Best-kept secret

Experiential learning has been a core feature of Augsburg’s academic framework for more than 100 years. In the late 1800s Augsburg’s second president, Georg Sverdrup, required students to have pre-ministerial experience with congregations around Minneapolis. Today 100% of undergraduate students participate in some form of experiential learning. It takes shape for many students through internships, study abroad, research, and community engagement, in addition to the hands-on components already built into many academic courses.

Joe Connelly is the principal torchbearer for the practice, serving as experiential education specialist with Augsburg’s Center for Global Education and Experience. Connelly said these types of experiences are essential and always relevant for students. The experiences are also part of the university’s thinking about how a liberal arts education should prepare students for vibrant careers addressing challenges in their communities and around the world.

The River Semester crew paddled significant portions of the Mississippi River. (Photo by Courtney Perry)

“If there’s one best-kept secret, it would be just what an important role Augsburg plays to provide experiential learning for their own students and students around the country. This is work that is so closely tied to the mission of Augsburg—and creating vocation—and this is work that has been going on for decades,” Connelly said.

And while the opportunities have always mattered, today’s global uncertainties provide perhaps even more motivation to make sure experiential learning continues, he said.

“We provide students the opportunity to immerse themselves in other peoples’ lives, in other peoples’ realities,” Connelly said. “They share a meal, sit around a table and hear other peoples’ stories about their experiences with war or other hardship. We understand that life is very complicated, very nuanced. Things are not black and white; there are a lot of sides to it, and it’s not cut and dry. Through experiential education, students understand that’s what life is—it’s not easy answers; it’s not a yes or no.”

Science backs what these educators know: Moving out of a traditional classroom setting and into a learning experience can be challenging, but the effort is worth the work. In a 2019 study published by the Lithuanian Science Council in Public Health Magazine, researchers Viktorija Piščalkienė and Hans Ingemann Lottrup found that, “Experiential learning and experience reflection hold a significant role as an educational methodology, and it is a shared value to prepare students for the challenges in a changing world by developing professionals who can think critically and reflectively.”

Having time to reflect is what motivated Pippert to go north. Associate Professor Joe Underhill was moved to go north, and south.

Underhill, Augsburg’s environmental studies director, wanted time and space to put big questions to his students. Specifically, he wanted to engage his students in more than conversation about climate change—he wanted them to find ways to combat it. And since big questions can benefit from having big space to work within, Underhill turned to the Mississippi River.

Joe Underhill [second from right] and a crew hand-build the boats for the 2021 River Semester. (Photo by Rebecca Slater)
“We started with smaller trips,” he said, experiences that paired his students with like-minded nonprofits like the Audubon Society or the Friends of the Mississippi. But Underhill and the students wanted more. That desire gave way to what is now the River Semester.

“The ideas or inspiration behind the program have to do with the value of direct embodied experience as a way to learn, rather than reading about something,” he said. “You are seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing. Seeing the beauty of the river and the challenges, it sticks with people, it hits home, and it is the kind of thing you don’t forget. If you want to learn about something, there’s no better way than to experience it firsthand.”

‘I can do so much more’

Launched in 2015, the most recent River Semester ran for 101 days in Fall 2021. The team started with a trip to the Boundary Waters, where they paddled and camped for several days while they got to know one another a bit better, learned more about what the semester would hold, and came to grips with spending four months away—far away.

There was a mix of rowing, sailing, and making use of shuttle vehicles that occasionally carried the group from one part of their journey into another. And the group camped on islands or in municipal river parks, eating mostly what they made on cookstoves.

It was an experience that Zoe Barany ’23 won’t forget.

“I have never in my life found a community like I did when I was on the river,” Barany said. “People were so generous and kind with their resources and their authentic love for the environment. We had the ability to take agency and get things done. I just found a home out there.”

As an environmental studies major, Barany said they first fell in love with the promise of nature while in high school. But the River Semester opened their mind to so much more.

“I come from a place of privilege. I’m a white environmentalist, but I have still struggled with things to work through,” Barany said. “Being out there, it challenges you. It reveals things you don’t want to see about yourself. It’s just honest.”

Barany said they specifically learned of the power of clear communication.

“In everyday life you can sweep things under the rug, but when you’re outside you have to go through things,” Barany said. “Sometimes I would lash out at people or be upset, or complain instead of enjoying the time we had. It challenged me to step up, be a leader, communicate, and speak on behalf of my needs and what I need to function in a group. Having that knowledge now is so empowering.”

Elias Wirz ’23 prepared for his River Semester with small trips in 2019 and 2020. There was never any question about making the 100-day journey.

“It’s one of the biggest reasons I chose Augsburg. There’s nothing like it that I’ve found. With the River Semester you get to see a part of the world that you would never see if you don’t do something like this. You get to learn about yourself and what you are capable of, on top of learning some super interesting coursework.”

Wirz said with every experience, the group just kept getting stronger.

“My biggest takeaway is that I believe I can do so much more than I ever could because of the River Semester. Being able to do something like this, you feel like you’re capable of so much more. You want to keep going, trying, testing your limits—if I can do this, what other great things can I do now?” Wirz said.

Some of that understanding came not only from the experience overall, but from the hundreds of small, seemingly innocuous moments along the way. It is in the accumulation of those moments—applying academic knowledge in practical ways and engaging with the people present—that experiential education transforms abstract ideas into real-world skills and understanding. That’s how Augsburg students become informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders.

“There’s a lot of good happening. In every city we went through, in every experience we had, I’m convinced that people are inherently good,” Barany said. “Now I want to serve, to continue this cycle of goodness.”

The River Semester crew traveled by catamarans down the Mississippi River. (Photo by Courtney Perry)

 


 

 


 


Top image: Professor Joe Underhill [back row] and students paddled hand-crafted catamarans during the River Semester. (Photo by Courtney Perry)

 

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