Remote Semester: Alumna Turns College into Expedition

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“The first day, I needed to drive from Walla Walla, Washington to Boise, Idaho, and I also had to complete eighty pages of reading for class the next day,” recalls Semolina Schillberg, (Semester 57, George River Trip ‘17, Camp Staff ‘18-’19). “I ended up making myself stop every hour and read twenty pages.” She spent the week camped on the snake river, completing classwork from her truck, leading up to a three-day weekend whitewater kayaking with friends. She capped off the weekend at a remote hot spring while readying herself for the next move. This was not your typical junior year of college. 

When schools and colleges across the country announced they were moving to remote learning last year, Schillberg (like many students) was left in a lurch. Should she return home to New Zealand or stay in Walla Walla, where she attends Whitman College? Neither, she decided. She was going to take the idea of a remote semester to another level. 

“Being on campus was a constant reminder of everything we were missing out on,” says Schillberg. Still, when the pandemic first hit in the spring, most people thought the lockdown would be over in a few weeks, so heading out felt drastic. Then, she suffered a freak accident that shattered her leg. Schillberg wasn’t going anywhere.

She spent the next few months recovering from her couch and canceled her summer plans to guide rafting trips in Leavenworth, WA. Then, three weeks before in-person classes were scheduled to start, Whitman College announced that students wouldn’t be going back to in-person learning after all.

“It was a really draining time,” says Schillberg. She had loved Witman’s campus life and felt exhausted by the constant screen time. So, Schillberg challenged herself to reframe the situation. “How can I take this situation and turn it into an opportunity that’s cooler than what I’d be doing during a normal semester? Like, what can I do now that I’d never been able to do if we were doing in-person classes?” 

Schillberg had a 1997 Ford Ranger pick-up. “I thought to myself; I could build out this truck and do online classes from the road,” she recalls. A trip would allow her to explore outside with friends whom she missed dearly. A classmate was having similar thoughts, and within a few hours, Schillberg was making plans to buy a truck canopy via craigslist for $150. “It wasn’t very watertight,” laughs Schillberg. “This never would’ve worked in a wetter climate.” 

Schillberg was excited – and nervous. “We came up with this crazy plan, and everything started happening very quickly. I freaked out at a couple of points when it first started to sink in.” 

She had help, though. A friend’s dad helped her build out the camper and fix some of the leaks. Over a weekend, they built a bed platform, shelving, and storage compartments, changed the lock and gaskets, and gave it a new coat of paint. “I just showed up, we created a design, and he helped me build this thing from morning to night for two days straight,” Schillberg gratefully recalls. 

Schillberg stayed in Walla Walla for the first few weeks of classes to get the hang of the material and gather supplies. She upgraded her phone plan and got a mobile hotspot. Then, she was on the road, caravanning with her classmate.

They planned a loose itinerary based on where friends lived – mostly people they knew from Whitman and Chewonki. But, they decided, even spending most of their time at campsites and just squeezing in a hike here and there would be better than staying home. After their successful first weekend in Boise, they kept it up, slipping in hikes, rock climbing, mountain bike rides, and paddling everywhere they went. 

Sounds great, right? But, how was school going? Schillberg thinks she did better academically than she would have otherwise. “It’s so easy for remote school to drag on and sap your energy. Even though we were really busy, traveling forced us to be super-efficient about our school work,” she says. “I thought of it as refilling my cup; keeping myself recharged and energized during an otherwise incredibly draining time.” 


Schillberg during her semester at Chewonki

Plus, this isn’t Schillberg’s first time ‘round the block. Following Maine Coast Semester, she participated in another semester program traveling around the Pacific Northwest on a bus with the Expedition Education Institute. She’s also completed our five-week George River Expedition and several others, both as a participant and a leader. At 21, Schillberg is a seasoned adventurer who is constantly expanding her personal limits.

Schillberg says her time in Maine gave her confidence, direction, and community. “Chewonki set me on a path towards the George, the Bus, Whitman, and all those have been positive experiences.” Her Chewonki peers are also important to her, “both the George and working as a trip leader gave me connections to people to do and see [the world] with,” she says.

Schillberg with her semester-mates on Chewonki Neck

The last stop on Schillberg’s trip was Moab, and after three weeks in the desert, she hustled to Seattle, Washington, and caught a flight to NZ. “I did my finals in a managed isolation hotel back home,” she says. After an eventful fall, she completed her spring 2021 semester from her hometown of Dunedin (the usual way – no trips) and recently returned to Walla Walla for the summer.

We wish you the best in your continued studies and adventures, Semolina! Thanks for the inspiration.

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