Cleaning up the Mississippi River

An alternative spring break experience for students

Imagine spending long days soaking wet, sweaty and smelling like trash; that’s how Assistant Dean for Student Leadership and Engagement Eric Stolar described the upcoming Alternative Spring Break trip to clean up litter in the Mississippi River.
The trip will bring eight students and two faculty chaperones to Memphis, Tennessee in collaboration with the nonprofit Living Lands & Waters from March 5-10. Students from a handful of different colleges will join together for a week of service work hauling thousands of pounds of trash out of the river. Stolar chaperoned the trip during the 2021-22 academic year and will be chaperoning again this year.
“It’s not the most glamorous trip out there, but it’s a lot of fun,” Stolar said. “It’s very different than what a lot of people are used to.”
ASB is not an organization but a loose nationwide brand of students choosing to participate in organized, service-based “volun-tourism” trips during their spring breaks, according to Associate Dean and Director of Community Engagement Colin Hurley. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the college typically organized four or five annual ASB trips.
However, this year, due to faculty turnover and the need to sponsor trips for students in the Bonner program who have to catch up on their required service hours, the Living Lands & Waters trip is the only ASB opportunity open to the general student body. Out of all the possible ASB trip options he could have pursued, Hurley worked to organize the trip specifically with Living Lands & Waters.
“Living Lands & Waters is perhaps one of the perennial favorites because of the energy involved with it,” Hurley said. “The folks at the home in Memphis are entrepreneurial, kind of funky. They have that — it’s almost like an Allegheny edge to them.”
Hurley said it is a goal of the Office of Community Engagement to grow the number of ASB trips back to the pre-COVID number of three or four each year. Scholarships are available for students who are interested in participating with the program and require financial assistance.
Elsa Waidelich, ’25, decided to go on the trip last year because she had visited her home just a few weeks prior to spring break and felt her time would be better spent helping out a community in need.
“It was a really cool opportunity because you get to contribute something, since it’s a service project,” Waidelich said. “But also you get to go see — I’d never been to Memphis, so that was exciting. It was just a really good deal all in all to get to go somewhere and see new things.”
A typical day for participants begins with meeting at the boat dock around 8:30 a.m. The volunteers then travel via boat to their designated clean-up spot and split into smaller groups to work for the morning. Though the work is strenuous, the community culture is lively and positive with ever-present music, conversation and laughter, Stolar said. Over lunch, students learn about relevant topics related to environmental science, like the Living Lands & Waters organization, the significance of pollution in watersheds and the consequences of consumerism. After lunch, they will work until 3 or 4 p.m., when they then break for the evening to spend time in the cultural center of downtown Memphis.
The most common trash in the Mississippi River is single-use plastics, but volunteers have found many interesting items scattered among those plastics.
“The trash barge is just full of the weirdest stuff imaginable,” Waidelich said. “They like to collect some of these things. There was a fence that had these baby dolls they would pull out of the river — it’s terrifying. It’s insane. They have rewards for who can find the weirdest stuff in the week. You can find some crazy trash out there.”
During Waidelich and Stolar’s session, volunteers removed 22,901 pounds of trash from the Mississippi River.
“It was nice to see the impact you’re making on the community,” Stolar said. “We would arrive on a really heavily littered beach and after the day, you get to leave and see how different it looks and that was a really cool thing.”
Spending spring break volunteering for Living Lands & Waters was not an easy endeavor for Stolar or Waidelich.
“One of the phrases that Alternative Spring Breaks brings to mind — having been on them in the past — is ‘challenge by choice,’” Hurley said. “There will be times where you’re pushed to your limit — especially on, like, day three when you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, my muscles.’ And so there will be times where (you’re) maybe delegating a duty or not stepping up to do something because you’re physically exhausted. And it’s in those moments where students support one another and you have fun in your tiredness.”
Although the experience was demanding for Waidelich, it was worth it because of the connections she made with classmates and everything she learned about environmental science on the trip.
The trip is not meant solely for Environmental Science & Sustainability majors. There has been a broad diversity of students on past trips, all of whom had the opportunity to take their respective classroom learning and apply it to the “real world” by practicing adaptation and communication skills, according to Stolar. He said all students who are willing to step out of their comfort zones and examine issues from different perspectives will do well and benefit from the experience. For students who are new to the program, Stolar anticipates a powerful shift in perception of the relationship between pollution and the role it plays in large cities.
“When you’re in a big city, you kind of turn a blind eye to all those things,” Stolar said. “But when you’re the folks on the side of the highway cleaning it up, it’s a very different story.”
Waidelich recommended that all students who are interested in exploring the country and helping others should apply for future ASB trips.
“Keep in mind that you can learn a lot from it,” Waidelich said. “I learned a lot just from my peers from the Allegheny group. That was just fun. And then you have some more connections on campus that you might not have had otherwise.”