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Elizabeth Ann Rowlison '00Randolph Feature Story: September 2007

"It's like a ghost town."

The 20 members of Randolph College’s American Culture Program are walking through the infamous Ninth Ward of New Orleans, surveying the destruction that still mars the neighborhood almost two years after Hurricane Katrina hit.

In an unforgettable week, they've talked to residents who are deeply frustrated with the government’s response to the predominantly African-American neighborhoods compared with the now-spotless streets of the French Quarter.

The moment provides a strong emotional tie to the Civil Rights theme of the program’s eight-day trip through the South. Days earlier, the students traveled to Selma and Montgomery. They spoke with a survivor of “Bloody Sunday” and walked across the very bridge where police had attacked her and other Civil Rights demonstrators with billy clubs and tear gas only 40 years ago.

Elizabeth-Ann Rowlison is the coordinator of the American Culture Program, a semester-long combination of four interrelated academic classes and three excursions to important U.S. locations that exemplify the semester’s theme.

“[The American Culture Program] is unique in this country,” says Rowlison, a 2000 graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and an alumna of the program. “We don’t know any program like it in a university anywhere.”

“It is truly interdisciplinary,” adds Rowlison. “You get to see how history, literature and politics interact and intersect. And not only do you do that in an academic setting in the classroom, you actually get to go out and see the things that you’ve been studying.”

When Rowlison participated in the program as an undergraduate, she and her classmates traveled to New England, where they read Thoreau on the banks of Walden Pond, walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, and sat in Eugene O’Neill’s house discussing Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

“The best thing for me about the program is the way it really transforms our students and forces them to look at the world in different ways,” says Rowlison, who works in Randolph’s brand-new Experiential Learning Center. “They often come out of the program more interested in engaging in the world, tackling issues, and wanting to make the world a better place.”

The American Culture Program is open to sophomores, juniors and seniors from any major and is limited to 12 students. Participants in the program set aside a full semester to take four classes taught by rotating faculty: the American Culture Seminar, American Images, American Voices I, and American Voices II, the travel component.

For last semester’s theme, “Banned in America,” the students spent a week exploring the Civil Rights movement:

  • In the seminar, they read Walking With the Wind, a memoir by Georgia congressman John Lewis.
  • In American Images, they watched segments from the acclaimed Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize.
  • In the American Voices I class, they spoke with a Randolph professor about her experience growing up black in Lynchburg.
  • And for American Voices II, they traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with a staffer from congressman Lewis’ office and to speak with a representative from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Rowlison is ironing out the details for next spring’s program, themed “America Consumed.”

“Everything from food to land to energy,” explains Rowlison. “But also things that consume us: celebrity and beauty, the perfect wedding, and reality TV.”

The big trip? Where else? Las Vegas, baby.

To find out more about the American Culture Program, visit the Experiential Learning Center.