Off-campus study perseveres at the Oregon Extension
Every fall, several dozen college students from across the country travel to Oregon to learn and embrace what it means to live intentionally while pondering big ideas through reading, conversation, and intellectual exploration. With the aid of its remote wilderness setting, the Oregon Extension Program allows students to take a break from their busy lives while exploring and working the land together.
While most off-campus study programs were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Olaf College students enrolled in the Oregon Extension Program were still able to participate in that program during Fall 2020. Located in the heart of the Cascade Mountains in Lincoln, Oregon, students were able to learn while distanced from outside communities. Following a routine quarantine period upon arrival, this allowed them to experience a semester relatively free from the effects of the pandemic.
The Oregon Extension program offers students a hands-on learning experience in a small community setting, and it has been very popular among St. Olaf students since they first began participating in 1998. In fact, of the 28 students who participated in the Oregon Extension this past fall, 12 of them came from St. Olaf. Emphasis is placed on reading, writing, and discussion of topics of nature, community, humanity, and sustainability. Students apply these emphases to performing their own jobs on the sustainable farm and campus where the program takes place.
Director of the Oregon Extension and Professor of Christian Thought and History Tad Cobb says that one of the purposes of the program is for students to have “lasting thoughts about nature, society, and self.” He also emphasizes the importance of experiences in sustainability, the study of religious faith as a part of the human experience, and the long-lasting friendships made throughout the semester.
Students live in cabins on an isolated campus complete with a recreational facility, farming areas, and academic spaces that allow students and staff to live in a tight-knit community that’s all their own. This space allows students to live closer to nature and the basic necessities of life while exposing them to ways of sustainable living.
The goal of this setting is to encourage students to “unplug” from the hectic energy that college students and other young professionals experience in the world today.
There are two laptops dedicated to student use 24/7, so no one on campus is ever entirely off the digital highway. Email can be checked and sent daily, but most weeks, Monday through Friday, phones disappear and wireless access for personal laptops is off.Oregon Extension director Tad Cobb
“There are two laptops dedicated to student use 24/7, so no one on campus is ever entirely off the digital highway,” Cobb says. “Email can be checked and sent daily, but most weeks, Monday through Friday, phones disappear and wireless access for personal laptops is off.”
Students take part in one core course at a time during their semester in Oregon, similar to an Interim on campus. Throughout the semester, there are four core courses that are titled as questions: What Is Nature? What Is Community? What Does It Mean to Be Human? and What Is a Sustainable World? During each individual course, the students are asked to reflect on their answers to the question and are given reference points in books they read and from lectures. At the end of each course, students present their individual research on their own conclusions through a written paper and by leading a seminar discussion.
One of the St. Olaf participants, Lauren Sherman ’22, is a biology and environmental science double major. She found value in the program through its emphasis on sustainable living and responsible consumption, and was able to tie those aspects into her majors at St. Olaf. Through this program, she was able to identify a clearer idea of her own career path and academic interests.
The nature of the program also complemented her background in the sciences as well. The majority of the program is based in the humanities and allows students who focus on STEM subjects to immerse themselves in a new subject field to broaden their breadth of knowledge.
On the other side of the academic spectrum, Finn Johnson ’22 focuses more on the humanities. As a philosophy and political science double major, Johnson came to the program with a much different academic focus and personal approach — yet he was able to dive into the philosophical and ethical reasoning side of the program.
“You get this chance to reflect and think about the really big and important questions that are so crucial in the study of philosophy, and this environment offers that time and space,” Johnson says.
Because of the reading-intensive and discussion nature of the program, both Johnson and Sherman found themselves learning how to better articulate their thoughts in the classroom, participate in meaningful conversation with their peers, and learned how to digest lengthy and dense readings.
In addition to growing academically, both Sherman and Johnson felt they were able to take a break from their busy lives at St. Olaf and reflect on their own experiences.
The whole program is geared towards this idea that you can take a step back from the regular hustle of college life and just use that time for reflection and thought.Finn Johnson ’22
“The whole program is geared towards this idea that you can take a step back from the regular hustle of college life and just use that time for reflection and thought,” says Johnson.
Outside of the classroom, students participated in backpacking trips on weekends in various state parks and on hiking trails throughout the semester. Students visited the Oregon coast, Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, and went on hikes throughout the area. For each trip, there are three levels of difficulty that students can choose from. In the highest level of difficulty, you can expect to be hiking around 10 miles a day through steep inclines and on tricky terrain, whereas the lowest level of difficulty is more akin to “car camping” where you set up your tent in one place to serve as a home base for the entirety of the trip.
Regardless of which difficulty students pick, each group had uniquely memorable and distinct experiences to take with them. Professors accompanied students on these excursions and implemented teachings from the classroom to their environment to facilitate a hands-on learning experience.
“When we were out backpacking and hiking, we were with ecologists and political scientists and all of these amazing professors who knew things about the natural lands that we were walking through, so we were learning about what we were reading,” Sherman says.
Because learning about sustainability and environmental health plays such a large role in the Oregon Extension, students actively take part in preserving the land that they occupy throughout the semester.
On the Oregon Extension campus, students take part in chores and farm posts that help to reduce the environmental footprint of the program. Chores included milking goats in the mornings, collecting chicken eggs, animal care, gardening, and growing food. Each of these chores provides a means of sustainable living for the students and professors, and keeps them responsible for their own consumption and waste. Farm posts included duties to support food preservation, trail and pond maintenance, and trash sorting. Throughout the four months that students were in Oregon, the entire cohort of students and professors produced just one trash bin of waste.
“I worked in the garden, so I spent three hours a week tending to it,” Sherman says. “Sometimes in rain, sometimes in snow, but in the summer it was really nice to be outside and doing something to benefit our community.”
Students live within close quarters of one another. Because of the tight-knit nature of the program, students return to St. Olaf in the spring with new friendships that they might not have had the opportunity to develop in a normal campus setting.
“All of this is the fertile ground where lasting friendships begin,” Cobb says. “Friendships that extend far beyond the semester, sometimes for decades.”
Students continue to apply the lessons and knowledge they have learned from their time in Oregon to their living now. Johnson has learned to take time for the things that bring him joy even if he is busy, which is especially important in a traditional academic setting. Environmental responsibilities have also been reinforced as a way of life, impacting the day-to-day thoughts and actions of students when transitioning to life off of campus.
“There’s an emphasis on environmental connection and connecting with the world around us, and part of that is learning about how we are part of the system,” says Johnson.
For students considering whether the Oregon Extension could be a good fit, Cobb emphasizes four things to keep in mind:
- The Oregon Extension is book-centered, but you don’t have to be a bookworm when you arrive! And if you need more motivation to push yourself to read, there is always a pot of hot coffee and tea waiting for you during discussion.
- Be prepared to “throw yourself into a community.” Students live together, cook and eat meals together, form bands, teach each other new skills, and adventure together.
- The Oregon Extension is analog, not digital. Though never completely cut off from all Internet resources, the access is very limited. Be ready to push yourself to leave social media and other pressures of the Internet behind.
- Finally, the Oregon Extension satisfies the longings of anyone with a romance for the West — mountains, coast, and city. Guaranteed.
“Living in a cabin with a wood stove, reading a book next to it, falling into a conversation about the book around it — there is a magic in that experience that lends itself to learning,” Cobb says. “At the core of the OE is this warp in time and space that clears the head and heart to learn in a different way.”
Students interested in learning more about the Oregon Extension or other off-campus learning opportunities can make an appointment with an International and Off-Campus Studies advisor or visit stolaf.studioabroad.com.