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UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage to take part in NIH research

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: The last Civil Rights Pilgrimage trip took place in January 2020, and included a day at the Whitney Plantation, pictured here. Students often are strongly impacted by this location, and walking the grounds where slaves were born, lived and died in captivity.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s cornerstone cultural immersion trip, the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, makes its highly anticipated return to travel from Jan. 7-17.

While resuming the road trip through the Deep South, this immersion also will take part in an important public health study through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), testing the efficacy of at-home COVID-19 testing kits.

“Researchers at the NIH were looking for a university population to help them examine and improve self-testing for COVID,” says Grace Crickette, UW-Eau Claire’s vice chancellor for finance and administration.

The CRP trip already was set to conduct regular COVID-19 lab testing on the road, so those students volunteering for the study will use self-test kits as well, and submit uploaded photos of both test results to the NIH researchers for comparison. Students taking part will be compensated with a monetary stipend for their efforts.

“This program offers improved safety for our traveling students, financial support and the chance to contribute to important national research,” Crickette says.

The CRP trip centers on immersive learning about the civil rights movement, and program founder and director Jodi Thesing-Ritter points out that issues of diversity are a central element of the NIH research as well.

“Our CRP trip fits well with several angles of interest in the NIH research — certain geographic locations included in our route, the relative safety in transportation modes like our bus and especially the diversity that our student population brings to the study sample,” says Thesing-Ritter, UW-Eau Claire’s director for diversity and inclusion. “As COVID-19 continues to transition from a pandemic to an endemic public health status, these data points will be increasingly important in understanding spread and management.” 

Student planning team flexibility

Fran Riley

FranChesca Riley, psychology major and four-time CRP student coordinator

For the student coordinators on the CRP, preparations and planning for health and safety have been central to the mission since the early fall announcement of travel, and current pandemic trends have required some unexpected and last-minute changes to the standard CRP itinerary.

According to four-time CRP coordinator FranChesca Riley, changes have been made to both the sequence of stops and sites visited to best accommodate safety precautions and hours of availability for locations.

“It was extremely important to our team that we find a way to get the full CRP experience,” says the junior psychology major from Waukesha. “That meant reworking the entire first couple days of the trip and contacting locations to shuffle some reservations. We are extremely proud of this team for keeping their heads held high and forging on through the complications of planning, creating the best and most safe experience possible.”

One traditional stop on the itinerary, the famous Whitney Plantation in New Orleans, currently is not accepting visitors. While this pivotal visit so rich in immersive learning opportunities will be missed, Thesing-Ritter is excited for the replacement stop the student team was able to secure at the Laura Plantation.

“This is a key location in Louisiana Créole history, so we are looking forward to learning more about this culture and to have the chance to see how different plantations operated,” Thesing-Ritter says.

As one of four campus cultural immersion trips approved for travel over Winterim, the CRP participants once again will be able to witness and absorb the sites and firsthand stories of history Thesing-Ritter says are crucial in developing the cultural literacy and understanding UW-Eau Claire seeks to promote.

“In light of all that has happened in our nation over the last two years, we are so grateful to make this journey and engage in these critical conversations when these issues are top of mind for so many,” she says. “There is simply no substitute for hearing first-person accounts within the physical context of these locations and then, through our daily conversations, connecting those stories to our lives today.”

To see photos, videos and updates of the CRP students’ journey from Jan. 7-17, visit the Civil Rights Pilgrimage Facebook page.