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Intercultural LEAD program forges partnership with Collegebound to expose more incoming students to the outdoors

Alexis Martinez Mejia grew up in Annandale, Minnesota, about a half-hour southeast of Collegeville. He participated in the Saint John’s Boys Choir and was familiar with Saint John’s University even before he enrolled as a psychology major and member of the Intercultural Leadership Education and Development Fellowship Program in the fall of 2021.

His best introduction to college, however, came more than four hours to the northeast, when he participated in Collegebound, an annual optional outdoor orientation program for incoming College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s students. Each August, first-year and transfer students can elect to spend a week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The students spend time in community but then split up into smaller groups once they reach the BWCA, which mandates encampments of no more than nine people at a site to minimize disruption to wildlife. The sanctuary stretches for 150 miles along the U.S.-Canadian border and covers nearly 1.1 million acres with 1,100 lakes and 1,500 miles of canoe routes – which is the only mode of transportation authorized in the wilderness.

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Taylor Barber (wearing a red hat) and Kaelin Cochran (left) paddle their canoes as part of this year’s Collegebound trip. Barber, a senior natural science education major from Spicer, Minnesota, served as one of the leaders on the trip. Cochran is a sophomore biology/biochemistry major from Duluth, Minnesota.

Collegebound has been available to the general student population since 1987 at SJU and 1994 in a joint operation with CSB. This year the cost was $395. Last fall, Collegebound piloted a partnership with I-LEAD where the first-generation college students – often from historically underrepresented backgrounds but nonetheless high-achieving – could participate at little to no expense.

“I’d never been camping before in my life,” Martinez Mejia said. “So, I was really nervous about it. But then I showed up and the leaders introduced us to our cohort, and I found another friend right away who was in the I-LEAD program. I’d never been canoeing, either. We had an hour of practice before we left, but I loved it. I got to know the people in my small group, and I sort of came out of my shell during that five-day span. I made friends right away and it was a great experience to connect with people without the stress of school. Almost all of my friends that I have now are from Collegebound.”

He enjoyed it so much, he served as a guide this year, when 53 first-year students – including virtually the entire incoming I-LEAD cohort – and 27 leaders embarked from Collegeville to Grand Marais and into the BWCA. Last year’s trip was cut short by wildfires that forced campers to evacuate on short notice.

“We were expecting to stay two more days when we got a warning that we had to leave,” Martinez Mejia said. “We had to canoe for 12 hours straight to get out. That will stay with me forever because it pushed me out of my limits. If you’d asked me if I could do it, I’d have said ‘No way. My arms would fall off.’ But I learned that mind over matter is truly a thing and I proved to myself I could go beyond what I thought I could do.”

Hidden benefit for participants

That’s the hidden benefit in such a trip for all students, and especially those navigating college for the first time in the history of their families.

“They’re building relationships and connections through healthy risk-taking,” said Kyle Rauch, assistant director and education coordinator for CSB and SJU adventure programs through Outdoor University – which oversees Collegebound. “It requires a certain amount of grit to go out there canoeing and camping for four nights and five days. Once they’ve done it, it shows them on some level that they’re tough. They can get through it. Broadly speaking, it gives them more confidence and a peer network with which to start their college career. The first six weeks of college are the hardest time for all students, let alone I-LEAD students, and perhaps by going through this they will be better prepared for the academic, social and emotional challenges that come once school starts.”

Jesus Segovia learned that last year. He planned to go on Collegebound in 2020, but it was canceled by the pandemic. In 2021, he volunteered to help lead the trip – even though he had no experience camping in the wilderness.

“Throughout my freshman year I was very active on campus,” said Segovia, who is a junior global business and Hispanic studies major from Dallas, Texas. “So, when ILEAD got involved in Collegebound last year, they asked me if I wanted to be a mentor. I thought they wanted me to be an orientation leader. When I showed up at Collegebound, I was like ‘Wait! What did I sign up for?’ But I felt like I needed to do it. I needed to get out of my comfort zone. And I loved it.

“At first, I didn’t think I was going to be capable of being a leader. Like canoeing – how am I going to teach someone canoeing when I don’t even know how to do it? But (Rauch) was super-patient and he knew I was going to get it. Same thing with cooking outdoors. I felt like ‘I can’t do this. I’m going to burn everything.’ But I learned to have patience. And that was the key for me dealing with when anything went wrong.”

Learning perseverance in a canoe

Segovia recalled when a canoe flipped their satellite phone became inoperable. Additionally, several participants got soaked, along with their clothes and gear.

“I’m a very optimistic person,” Segovia said. “I was like ‘We’re not going to let this ruin our time here.’ I told my group, ‘Guys, this is my first time being outdoors and leading a group. But we’re going to keep it real. We’re learning together and I’m not perfect.’ And it was amazing because we developed such a bond. The more experienced individuals were helping the others with how to tie ropes and how to carry your canoe. We became like brothers. And to be like that, we also got very vulnerable in sharing our stories. And since that trip, I’ve kept in contact with everyone from my group. There’s not one that I haven’t.”

And, when he studied abroad in Spain last spring, he went canoeing. This fall, he’s studying in Chile and routinely going for hikes.

“I never would’ve done that stuff before,” Segovia said. “I think it’s helped a lot of I-LEAD students learn to like the outdoors even around campus. That’s not a lifestyle a lot of us are familiar with and it opened my eyes and changed my perspective, like the world has so much to offer.”

Empowering to students with little outdoors experience

Oyuky Aragon-Flores, a senior nursing major from Forest Lake, was another I-LEAD student who served as a leader last year. She’s also a member of the Peer Resource Program, which seeks to enhance the personal development of the CSB and SJU community through wilderness trips, challenge courses and on-campus events.

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Collegebound participants, including several Intercultural Leadership, Education and Development scholars, broiled some northern pike for breakfast on Englishman Island in August on a trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The include (from left, back row) John Maile, Kameron Banner and Leo Stattelman-Scanlon, and (front row) Jack Ortman, Ahmaad Walker and Xor Lor. All are first-year students at Saint John’s except for Banner, a sophomore computer science major from Inglewood, California, who served as a leader for the trip. Banner, an I-LEAD scholar, also participated on Collegebound last year, the first of a pilot program including I-LEAD students along with all others for the excursion.

“I always thought it would be great if I-LEADers could go to Collegebound because it’s something that will stick with you throughout your college career,” she said. “It’s empowering to people who have never done anything like it. A lot of times BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) families don’t have the resources to go on a trip like that. I had camped once before in a very modern setting, and that was years ago with a friend’s family. So, I’m really proud that I-LEAD and PRP have closed the gap so more people could experience this. And it makes a difference. As a first-generation student, sometimes it feels like college is super hard. But after you’ve gone on a trip like this you can look back and say, ‘Hey, I did that. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I made it.’”

Aragon-Flores had planned to return as a leader this year but missed the trip because of illness.

PRP, which plans winter and spring break trips every year, is planning a fall break canoeing trip to the BWCA. Conditions should be beautiful, as they were for Martinez Mejia and the others who this year reported a beautiful experience. With no wildfires, they could see the millions of stars in the sky, and had plenty of time for swimming, fishing, and to eat their catch broiled over an open fire.

“Last year, we weren’t allowed to have fires because of the forest fires that were going on,” Martinez Mejia said. “We could have fires this year, but we knew had to control them or they could cause another disaster. Campfire storytelling is one of my favorite activities. My first year, we had to do it around a lamp, which wasn’t as fun. This time, I gathered firewood, and everyone told personal stories of where they come from or urban legends that they have. It opened my eyes to nature and the balance we have with it. It’s a great way to detox and separate yourself from all the technology and constant pressure in our lives.”

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Just after reaching a portage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Fr. Nick Kleespie takes a selfie with others on the Collegebound experience. The others include (second row) Adrian Belisle and Alexis Martinez, (third row) Tom Hobday and Matthew Morrison, (fourth row) Graham Miller and Emmanuel Popoca, and (fifth row) Henry Ricker and Christian Henkels.