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Life Lessons: An annual trip promises more than credits

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For 15 weeks each fall semester, Professor Bob Surbrug’s students attend lectures, lead discussions and submit papers to meet the syllabus requirements of his One America: Jazz, Blues, Rock and Soul class, a history elective exploring the musical heritage of the American South and the African American experience that bred it. But according to Surbrug, the most important lessons of his class take place more than 1,000 miles from campus on a weeklong trip to historical and musical landmarks that line the route from Memphis to New Orleans.

A collaboration between Professor Surbrug and Bay Path’s Office of Student Life, the annual trip to Southern states is typically focused on giving deeper context to Surbrug’s American history classes through itineraries that align with each semester’s topic. Previous One America tours have traced the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr; explored the Cuban immigrant experience in Miami; and followed the path of colonialism, slavery and the Civil War through Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Surbrug believes there’s much to be gained from the experience of venturing outside one’s comfort zone, especially in today’s polarized political climate. The goal of the trip—and the course—is for students to contemplate the concept of One America, and to consider the ways our history both unites and divides us. He explains “The idea of flyover country is important to the vision of One America. The idea is that students get to know America in between, not just the coasts or the Northeast.”

For many students balancing work, school and family obligations, travel is a rare luxury. Almost half of the cost of the One America trip is offset by Pat Pierce, Chair of  Bay Path's Board of Trustees and advocate for women’s education. Pierce’s contribution is driven by her belief in the power of travel to deepen connections and transform perspectives. Students can apply for a $500 scholarship by submitting an essay. If approved, then the total cost to them is only around $500. Considering the average college student spends $153 per course on textbooks, the trip offers an immersive, experiential learning experience at an accessible price. (One America does not use textbooks.)

This year, the tour included stops at the National Civil Rights Museum, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Graceland and New Orleans’ French Quarter, giving students the opportunity to engage with the stirring history and hard-won victories of African Americans and to witness the lasting impact of slavery, Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement on the nation’s attitudes, politics and popular culture.

A longtime student and scholar of the Civil Rights Movement, Professor Surbrug sees music as the most compelling medium for exploring America’s racial history, “The interaction of African Americans, who as slaves brought over the musical traditions of Africa, with European instruments and traditions created new kinds of music- jazz, blues, rock and roll, and soul music. Black migration brought those musical styles north. We go to the Ground Zero of American music.”

For Tabby Launder, a student from Rindge, New Hampshire studying writing and performing, visiting museums and landmarks was moving, but it was the live music scene in downtown Memphis that left the deepest impression. “I’m a bass player, and to see real musicians actually making a living made it seem like so much more than a hobby.” She continued, “I have to go back to Memphis. Beale Street is filled with hundreds of shops, bars and places to explore, and I didn’t get to see enough of it.”

Between visiting museums, taking in concerts, and tucking into some authentic Southern cooking, students also did two volunteer shifts, one with a local animal shelter, the other at a food pantry. Students were also required to interview someone from a community they visited to get insight into life there, beyond the museums and tourist spots.

“It’s very easy to skim along the surface, of let’s say Atlanta, but Atlanta, like every other city in the country has struggles,” Surbrug explains. “Our goal is to expand their view of the country and use that as a stepping stone to expanding their global perspectives. We hope they’ll observe what is the same, what is different, and we aim to inspire a love of traveling, adventure and learning along the way.”