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Illinois State students use spring break to clean up the Mississippi River

Students collecting trash

Students clear trash from the banks of the Mississippi River.

Editor’s note: Opportunities to participate in civic engagement activities are a core part of student life at Illinois State. Alternative Spring Break has been one way outreach is accomplished, with groups of students traveling to volunteer in various parts of the country during the March break from classes. This year teams left prior to travel restrictions enforced as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Itineraries were changed and trips cut short in order to get students back to campus safely. These stories are shared as an uplifting reminder of how Redbirds collaborate and care for each other.

While many students see spring break as a time to relax and have fun, a group from Illinois State traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, and spent their week picking up trash along the Mississippi River.

The outreach was part of the University’s Alternative Breaks program, housed in the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. Alternative Breaks trips focus on a social issue and give students the opportunity to learn about the topic while serving a community.

“The social issue our trip focused on was environmentally based,” said Katie Sebok, a junior political science major, and the main student leader for the trip. “We worked to clean up the trash that had basically covered the watersheds of the Mississippi River. We collected thousands and thousands of bottles, countless Styrofoam pieces ranging from the size of a barrel to only a centimeter big, and many random objects such as lighters, shoes, straws, and baby dolls.”

Three staff members led 34 students who completed approximately 888 hours of service. Although the trip was shortened by both rainy weather and the coronavirus (COVID-19), the group still managed to pick up more than 40,000 pounds of trash.

Redbirds worked with Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to river clean-up and watershed conservation. Students saw firsthand the environmental effects of trash in the waterway and the human impact caused by single-use plastics.

“The trash that we picked up was usually not thrown directly into the river but was picked up along the streets by water or wind and carried through the sewers to the river,” said Ethan Kosberg, a sophomore history and political science major and student leader on the trip.

“The trip impacted me personally because I saw for the first time what using a single-use plastic does to the earth. Every time we use a plastic bottle or Styrofoam cup, it ends up somewhere—whether that is a recycling plant, a landfill, or worst of all, the natural environment in rivers or lakes,” Kosberg said. “Coming back, I had to really check myself and say ‘Do I need to continue using single use items because they are convenient, or can I do better and be better about being sustainable?’ This was big for me because I personally feel like I do a lot for the earth already, but it is never enough.”

Office of Sustainability Director Elisabeth Reed, a trip advisor with the group, expressed the importance of the work done by the Redbirds.

Woman holding straws

Elisabeth Reed holds some of the plastic straws the group collected on the trip.

“I am tired and sore from picking up trash with this amazing crew, and a little disheartened from all the plastic waste,” Reed said. “At the same time, this group gives me so much hope for our future. They persevered through mountains of trash and gave it their all. They also called their family and friends to tell them to stop using single-use water bottles and Styrofoam!”

The students were in Memphis when it was announced that spring break would be extended and classes transition to online. They returned early, grateful for the experience that strengthened the group.

“Since nightly reflections are an integral part of Alternative Breaks, the students were already comfortable opening up to each other by the time the news hit,” Reed said. “These reflection times allowed the students to share their feelings, thoughts, and disappointments. Sharing with each other gave each student an outlet to grieve and feel comforted, and that we were all in this together.

“Whether it be picking up trash or helping to fix something,” Reed continued, “Alternative Breaks provide a sense of community and the lesson that we are all stronger together. Students can take these lessons with them anywhere they go in life…even in quarantine!”