Morgan Piper Cordova has imagined what it would be like to abandon the comforts of a college campus and spend a semester sailing the Mississippi River.
Worry set in as he read hyperbolic travelogues that made him fear the dangers along one of the nation's most famous waterways.
But as he painted one of the catamarans that will transport him and his classmates for the next four months — and professor Joe Underhill talked about things they'll learn along the way — a sense of calm set in.
"There is something that draws me that is unexplainable," said Piper Cordova, a senior at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio.
Piper Cordova is one of more than a dozen students participating in the River Semester program run through Augsburg University, based in Minneapolis. Instead of traveling to a foreign country, they'll study on the Mississippi River, sailing, paddling, camping, taking classes and conducting research. The program, which launches this week, is open to college students across the country, and instructors say they know of no other quite like it.
The students will stop in places like St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, meeting a wide variety of community organizers, researchers and other local residents along the way. They'll talk about climate change, test water quality and measure biodiversity. They'll learn how politics and racism affected development along the river — and how similar events are playing out today.
While Underhill wants the students to have a wide variety of academic lessons, he also wants them to have new experiences that build their confidence and help them solve problems. The students have a variety of majors — English, environmental studies and neurobiology, to name a few — and a wide range of experience camping, swimming or paddling. By the end of the trip, they'll have seen each other in rain and sun. Completely energized and totally exhausted.
"Almost without exception, everybody leaves different than they started," Underhill said, noting that many students walk away with "a whole new set of skills and comfort level."
Life lessons on the river
Most Augsburg University students hauled their belongings into dorm rooms last week; meanwhile Underhill set up a work space in a parking lot. He and fellow instructor John Kim, a Macalester College professor, taught the students how to sand and paint the vessels. They showed them how to tie crown and bowline knots, joking that they'll soon be doing it in their sleep. And they showed them how to lift the boats and begin setting the crossbeams that will connect them, making their transportation more stable.
The journey begins this week with a trip to Lake Itasca, where the students will learn about mining controversies and planting wild rice. They'll return to the Twin Cities and launch the boats in mid-September.
It's a trip that Meira Smit, a Macalester College student, has also been eagerly anticipating. She was working in her college's library when she overheard someone talking about the program, and "the rest is history."
In some ways, the trip felt fated. Her father did a solo trip along the Mississippi River when he was 21. She'll turn 21 along the way. But there will be one big difference: "I was excited for the opportunity to do it with a crew."
Smit is studying the environment, food systems and education and says "somehow that will all fit into why I'm going on the river."
She's eager to see how their voyage will compare to the ones French explorers made centuries ago. She also wants to learn about the plants and animals that were significant to people who lived and moved along the river, especially Native Americans and people who were escaping slavery or Jim Crow laws.
Piper Cordova looks forward to having an immersive experience that is "interweaving a lot of different disciplines" as opposed to reading about the river in a book. He wants to learn more about history and the environment. But he's also seeking something else.
His interest in it "partly is introspective."
"I'm trying to learn a little more about myself."