Krystal Meixner could have spent the fall semester planning sorority events, or studying in her dorm's commons room. Instead, the junior communications major spent it on the road with 16 fellow students, visiting dozens of cities and discussing such weighty issues as civil rights and illegal immigration.
The group from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, traveled cross-country in five minivans on the Study USA Tour, spending the nights in youth hostels and hotels. They returned just before Thanksgiving.
Although many colleges have study-abroad programs, Baldwin-Wallace is said to be the only college offering a full semester's worth of credits for a USA tour. "It's a signature piece for us," says Margaret Brooks-Terry, professor of sociology and director of the Explorations/Study Abroad program. She and the other faculty hope to offer the tour on alternate years.
The program included not only visits to important national sites but also course work in sociology, political science, and religion. Students set out to answer the question, "Who are we as a nation?"
The query could easily have been, "Who am I as a person?" as students discovered as much about themselves as they did about the communities visited. "It's amazing how much we all changed," Ms. Meixner says. The typical concerns about academic schedules, campus jobs, and frat parties gave way to a sober reflection on American culture.
Religion professor Alan Kolp says taking such a trip was a big step for Baldwin-Wallace students because they "tend to be culturally provincial." They come from close-knit families in and around Ohio and few have traveled much. The student body is fairly homogeneous, although political viewpoints vary. "I saw some students struggling to keep an open mind," he says of his periodic visits to the group on the road.
For example, when students visited the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco, which ministers to the gay community, and worked side by side with congregants, "they got to know these individuals on a first-name basis," says Professor Kolp, which helped defuse prejudice. An evangelical Christian student from Baldwin-Wallace "had the wonderful problem of how to square his beliefs" with the experience of a warm, inclusive welcome by gay church leaders.
Joan Scholl, a retired physical-education professor and her husband, a former schoolteacher, accompanied the group and managed the logistics. On-campus faculty members stayed in close e-mail and phone contact, and dropped in on the tour from time to time. Students wrote lengthy papers on laptops and had a debriefing after each region. They also wrote personal essays.
Professor Scholl was impressed by the growth in maturity as the trip progressed. Discipline wasn't a problem, although several times students needed to blow off steam after papers were turned in. Scholl says they all got along amazingly well despite the constant travel and tight quarters - what she calls "living out of each other's pockets."
Meixner is less sanguine. "It was grueling, with 12 girls in a room and 13 weeks' worth of luggage."
Few of the students knew one another beforehand, although two were dating before the trip. "They're still together," says Scholl. The group bonded early and fast.
"We were on top of Mt. Washington," famous for its extreme weather, "and we were all too cold to do anything but read and play games. No one could even take a shower. The feeling was that we were all in this together."
On the road, many heated political discussions took place. Religion was a frequent topic. A visit to a Bahai temple drew many reactions. Some students liked the idea of celebrating multiple religions, while others felt there needed to be one true religion.
Another stop that students remember vividly was along the US-Mexico border. There they met with the US border patrol and groups that give humanitarian aid to Mexicans trying to cross to the North. Scholl says that by hearing both sides, students understood more of the complexity of immigration issues.
Sophomore Daniel Root was moved by the trip to Koinonia Farm in Americus, Ga., a cooperative started in the 1940s to bring the races together. Throughout the upheaval of the civil rights era, the residents kept their vision. Koinonia Partners became the forerunner of Habitat for Humanity.
Seeing the place where so much happened gave Mr. Root a new respect for history. "I felt very empowered," he says. But his high school textbooks had let him down. "I went out and bought 'A People's History of the US,' " he says, because "I wanted a less glamorized view of what happened." Professor Kolp says that is exactly the college's aim - to move students out of their comfort zones and raise awareness of diverse viewpoints.
Professor Brooks-Terry couldn't be happier with the results this year. "We've seen great improvement in students' writing and analysis" from the start of the trip, she says. "It was a joy to teach them."