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Trip teaches students about Cajun country's uniqueness, Eau Claire connections

April 18, 2013
UW-Eau Claire students and faculty members pose for a picture at the Lafayette Welcome Center. Left to right, back row: Ryan Alger, Arik Arnevik, Matt Vergin, Mary Eppolite, Dr. Doug Faulkner. Left to right, front row: Mariah Dorner, Andrea VanHaren, Stephanie Breitzman, Carly Murray, Dr. Jessica Miller, Emily Christenson, Asia Riel.

EAU CLAIRE — Ten University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire students spent their spring break deep in the heart of Louisiana on a Cajun watershed and intercultural immersion trip to explore the Cajun culture, history and language, as well as the geographical features and environmental issues related to water in the Cajun area.

Dr. Jessica Miller, an associate professor in the foreign languages department, and Dr. Doug Faulkner, chair of the geography and anthropology department, led the students on the weeklong journey funded by the Blugold Commitment, an initiative supported by differential tuition funding that provides UW-Eau Claire students with high-impact learning experiences.

"The purpose of the immersion trip was to learn about the Cajun culture and language as well as the physical and environmental geography of southern Louisiana, specifically issues related to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers," Miller said. "We also wanted to show students how the Eau Claire area is connected to southern Louisiana and what falls into the Chippewa River is likely to make its way down there. Finally, we wanted to truly challenge their preconceived images of the Cajun environment and culture."

The students prepared for the trip by studying the background of the Cajun culture as well as the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers.

"We read various articles regarding the movement of the Acadians during "le Grand Dérangement," said Carly Murray, a sophomore psychology major from Ozark, Ala. "In this way, we were able to trace the roots of the culture and its development over time. We began discussing the Mississippi River and its tributaries, focusing on the movement and importance of the Atchafalaya River. Learning in this way really facilitated the connection between the Cajun community and the environment. We learned about each separately and then were able to see how the two are so interdependent."

Aside from articles and discussions, the class also heard from guest speakers such as Dr. Ezra Zeitler, a professor in the geography and anthropology department at UW-Eau Claire, who discussed the cultural geography of Louisiana and his own experiences with Cajun culture, and Dr. Aram deKoven, an associate professor in education studies, who addressed important aspects of interactions that occur during immersions in unique cultures.

During the immersion trip, the class stayed at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park and Cypremort Point State Park, both about an hour south of Lafayette. They traveled to various points of interest in the southern part of the state, including the Old River Control Structure, located north of Baton Rouge, where they learned about the efforts of the U.S. Corps of Engineers to control the Mississippi River in Louisiana. They also spent a day at the DeFelice Marine Center, a research and education facility of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium on the Gulf coast, where they were presented with information about the deterioration and shifts of the coastline and went trawling for marine organisms on a 58-foot research vessel in Terrebonne Bay.

Left to right: Asia Riel, Carly Murray, Stephanie Breitzman, Andrea VanHaren and Mary Eppolite visit a reproduced Cajun chapel at Vermilionville, a living history village.

The class also went to Vermilionville, a living history museum, where they visited an Acadian village and listened to a presentation of the history and evolution of the Cajun community. Students also spent time at Le Centre International de Lafayette, where they attended a presentation about the French language's importance in the area and the challenges for people there as they try to integrate the language while still respecting the different dialects in the community.

Arik Arnevik, a senior environmental geography major from Chippewa Falls, said the immersion experience affected him personally in many ways.

"Every time I get back from a trip away from home, there is some sort of feeling of a changed perspective — this trip especially," Arnevik said. "Seeing a world so different from the one I see every day really helped open my eyes and gave me the desire to travel more and experience other places and cultures around the country and the world."

Arnevik said the trip helped him visualize concepts and ideas he has been learning in his geography courses.

"This trip had a lot to do with geography from beginning to end — some environmental and some human and cultural," Arnevik said. "No other type of learning comes close to actually experiencing something first hand. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I thoroughly enjoyed."

Murray said she also was personally affected by her experience during the immersion trip and found the Cajun people's sense of spirit and pride in their culture and history contagious.

"Since returning from Louisiana, I've been inspired to examine my own family's heritage," Murray said. "The trip also made me more environmentally aware and passionate. Now, I am more conscious of my environmental impact and how it affects my community as well as the surrounding areas. It was really interesting to learn how much of our waste flows down the Mississippi River all the way to where we visited in Louisiana."

Students participated in a three-hour-long canoe trip down the Bayou Vermilion, where they saw cypress trees, invasive water hyacinths, an alligator and a Native American burial mound. Left to right: Carly Murray, Mariah Dorner, Asia Riel, Emily Christenson, Matt Vergin and Ryan Alger.

Murray also said her passion for the French language increased after being immersed in an environment with so many French speakers and has decided to minor in French.

The impact of the trip on the students was evident as they reported abandoning preconceived notions of the Cajun people and learned that the culture is rich with history and pride, Miller said. Faulkner added that the students came away with a deepened appreciation of human-environment relationships and the complexity of human-induced environmental change in Louisiana.

Miller and Faulkner also said they were proud of the students for their efforts to give back to the community by performing volunteer work for a coastal restoration project, removing nonnative invasive trees and planting native ones.

"It was a powerful experience to be able to do something for the community after learning about all of the environmental problems occurring in Louisiana," Miller said.

Being able to give back to the community was an important part of the trip, Murray said.

"This trip has really ignited my passion to do what I can to honor all that the people of Louisiana taught us," Murray said. "I hope that one day I get the opportunity to again travel south and work alongside the community there."

For more information on the Cajun watershed and intercultural immersion trip to Louisiana, contact Dr. Jessica Miller at or 715-836-4267, or Dr. Doug Faulkner at or 715-836-5166.



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