It’s no surprise if college students sometimes daydream about skipping class and floating down the Mississippi River like Huck Finn.
But this fall, 16 Augsburg College students will get to spend an entire semester traveling the river, and earn credit for their exploits.
On Sept. 1, Augsburg will launch its first “River Semester” when the students set off from Harriet Island in St. Paul in four 24-foot voyageur canoes.
The students, accompanied by two professors and two crew members, will spend three and a half months paddling to New Orleans. Along the way, they’ll take classes and work on independent projects that focus, in one way or another, on life on the Mississippi, from its ecology to history to literature.
The river semester was the brainchild of Joe Underhill, an associate professor of political science, and a fan of experiential education.
“We won’t be reading about the river, we will be reading the river itself,” he said. “I think that kind of firsthand experience is so much more powerful than just reading about it in a book.”
The journey is not for the fainthearted. “We’re paddling approximately 25 hours a week,” he said. “In a given day, we might have classes all morning, then lunch, then in the afternoon we paddle.”
Most nights, they’ll camp along the river. Waterproof jackets and long underwear are a must. “There definitely will be challenges,” he admits, especially for students. “How do you paddle for six hours in the rain and set up camp and then study?”
They plan to take advantage of the changing landscapes, testing water quality at Lake Pepin, meeting farmers in the Quad Cities, pondering Mark Twain in Hannibal, Mo. In mid-December, they’ll take the train home from New Orleans.
The fee, $7,500, is roughly equal to room and board on campus. That’s in addition to $17,400 in tuition.
But Underhill predicts the lessons will last a lifetime. As a student, he once spent a semester at sea. “I found that really to be one of the highlights of my undergraduate experience.”