Mekong's "golden triangle"The Mekong's "golden triangle" connects Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar—three of six nations in the river's path.

The rivers that connect us

A writer, an artist, and a family social scientist join forces to connect communities along the Mekong and Mississippi

Mekong River landscape under a pink sky at sunset, mountains in the distance
Rosy dusk settles on the Mekong River at Chiang Khong.

“Listen,” says Cathy Solheim. “Close your eyes and listen.”

River sounds sharpen—the shrill chorus of frogs and insects, chirping birds, the lap of a watercraft’s wake along the shore, and a bell, clanging across a wide expanse of water.

The Mississippi River is just yards away from the campus room where Solheim speaks. But the recorded sounds come from half a world away. The Mekong River begins on China’s Tibetan plateau and winds more than 2,700 miles southeast through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the South China Sea.

The packed room of students, faculty, staff, and community members has come to learn about internationalizing the curriculum and campus. For an hour, they are immersed in images and sounds of the Mekong. They also meet three woman engaged in a collaboration that is both natural and remarkable.

Solheim, a faculty member in the Department of Family Social Science, is a leader in international teaching and research. For more than 30 years, Thailand has been her second home. Her Global Families course is among the department’s most popular.

Linda Buturian is a writer who teaches humanities courses with a focus on cultural diversity and social change. She joined the U faculty in General College and is now in the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning. In 2008, she began assigning digital stories—three- to five-minute movies using computer-based tools to integrate audio, video, and research and communicate their findings.

Susan Andre is the lead designer on the college web team whose first international assignment, during grad school in New York, was helping to edit thousands of images taken by renowned documentary photographer Gilles Peress.

The Mekong River brought them together. Through their collaboration, Solheim introduced Buturian to Thailand and working in a global context. Buturian helped Solheim integrate digital storytelling and an environmental perspective in her courses. And Andre is helping both faculty members author a digital book that, unlike traditional textbooks, will not be out of date on the day it is published.

It hasn’t happened overnight or predictably.

“Just as the Mekong River winds and meanders across time and space,” says Solheim, “so does our journey towards global teaching and learning.”

A vision to connect communities

The journey began in 2010, when Solheim and Buturian attended Treks, an annual CEHD workshop that helps faculty and staff enhance their teaching through technology.

During a break, Buturian described to Solheim the seminar she created to introduce students to water-resource topics from disciplines representing both the sciences and humanities. Because so many students are visual learners and water is such a visual compound, Buturian found digital stories an effective way for students to communicate their findings.

Buturian also has a strong interest in rivers, partly because she has lived for 18 years on the Rum River, a tributary of the Mississippi north of the Twin Cities. She researches the patterns of environmental problems emerging across rivers.

“I’m interested in connecting communities along and across international rivers to share best practices,” she says. “The Mississippi, the Ganges, the Nile . . .”

“I heard Linda describe her vision about connecting communities along global rivers,” says Solheim, “and I said, ‘You know, I haven’t been to any of the rivers on your list except the Mississippi, but I have another river for you!’”

Solheim, born in Barnum, Minnesota, first encountered the Mekong River in 1979, soon after college. During an 18-month international development program in Thailand, she learned Thai and met her future husband. She described to Buturian how globalization is affecting families and communities along the Mekong River.

“After I met Cathy, the Mekong shot right to my top five,” Buturian says. “I started researching that river.”

Solheim and Buturian were awarded a grant from the University’s Global Programs and Strategy (GPS) Alliance and additional support from the college. A year later they traveled to northern Thailand, with Solheim also acting as Buturian’s interpreter.

A smiling man in a blue sweater, speaking with gestures.
Community organizer Kru Tee was among those interviewed by Solheim and Buturian for their digital story, “Mekong Mosaic.”

There they interviewed and recorded people in many roles and occupations about changes along the Mekong River. A fisherman, a boat captain, a field ecologist, a news editor, community elders and organizers—all described the alteration of natural cycles due to new dams upstream, a dramatic loss of fish populations, and increases in logging and barge traffic. The challenges appeared staggering.

“It’s very complicated and nothing that we haven’t done ourselves in the United States,” says Buturian. Everywhere they went in Thailand, she was impressed and inspired by the people they met—“resourceful, adaptable, smart and funny and gracious.”

“Linda learned more about Thailand, the Hill Tribes including the Hmong, and the river,” says Solheim. “I learned how to develop digital stories and approach the connection between families and the environment from a different perspective.”

Working local

Back in Minnesota, Solheim and Buturian worked with the college’s Academic Technology Services to produce their own 15-minute digital story about the trip. “Mekong Mosaic” is still used in their classes and across the college and campus. Most who view it don’t know Thai, but they get to hear it spoken and hear the sounds of the Mekong.

“The students in my classes love the river aspect of it,” says Solheim. “The way families act is connected to their natural environment—for example, how changes in the river impact the fish population, and how that affects the family livelihoods—and our students really get that. Rarely do family scholars talk about how families impact the natural, physical environment or are impacted by it. But our students do.”

Solheim used the experience to improve her Global Families course. And in 2012, she and Buturian joined the U’s Internationalizing Teaching and Learning (ITL) program, which supports curriculum design and redesign.

One of the voices from Thailand that stayed in Buturian’s mind was that of Miwatr Roikaew, or Kru Tee, a teacher and community organizer in northern Thailand. When Buturian asked his advice—for a message to take home to Minnesota students—his reply went straight to her heart.

“He said, ‘Work local,’” says Buturian.

Buturian looked with new eyes at the river visible from her office. The Twin Cities campus along the river is located in a national park—the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area—along its 2,300-mile path to the Gulf of Mexico. She talked with colleagues like Pat Nunnally, coordinator of the U’s River Life program, about the Mississippi as a global river, powerful and vulnerable: what happens to this river is felt around the world.

The mighty Mississippi began winding its way into all her courses—writing, art, and the first-year experience.

Buturian also developed a new course in the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning under the umbrella of PsTL 4216: Solving Complex Problems. She taught “Mississippi Local, Global—Community Based Approaches to Living with Rivers, Sustainably” for the first time last spring. Her students conducted research and fieldwork in the community and met guest speakers from the arts, sciences, and local organizations. They watched “Mekong Mosaic” and identified resources about other troubled world rivers, such as the Jordan and Nile.

Winter view of the Mississippi River and three women on on a walk bridge
Mississippi River course students, left to right, Phoebe Ward and Megan Trehey with Buturian on a campus walk bridge. Photo by Patrick O’Leary.

On the last day of class, the students presented their digital stories. The Mississippi appeared up close in images familiar, strange, beautiful, and sometimes shocking, from sunsets and bridges to garbage and art, urban and rural. It spoke in gurgles, raindrops, storm drains, a running tap, a watering can, and a coffee maker.

“This course really opened my eyes to the Mississippi,” says Megan Trehey, a senior in family social science who is interested in using art to connect people and communities. She included an interview with St. Paul artist Peter L. Johnson and his dazzling photographs of people partially immersed in the river.

Based on her experience in the course, Phoebe Ward, a junior, received a paid internship at U’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, where she worked all summer maintaining biodiversity plots.

New eyes and voices

Buturian and Solheim knew they wanted to expand their work.

“In learning abroad, so often we go to a place and learn about ‘them’ and don’t really contribute to what’s going on,” observes Solheim. “We try to incorporate service learning in the process. But we wanted something longer lasting. We wanted to build relationships over time and space.”

“The challenges communities are facing along rivers transcend the boundaries of our disciplines,” says Buturian. “We need to collaborate across disciplines and across rivers to address them.”

Andre was among those who saw “Mekong Mosaic” and was struck by the magnitude of the challenges facing Thailand.

“My imagination was on fire when I saw Cathy and Linda’s digital story about what was happening on the Mekong,” says Andre. “I wanted to help them realize their project. I wanted to create an opportunity for students to hear and see the Mekong River and meet the Thai people through video and photos.”

Andre had started learning how to convey complex and difficult stories since her 1994 experience working with Peress and Human Rights Watch to document the war in Rwanda. Now she, Buturian, and Solheim began a conversation that led to a proposal for a feature-length interactive book using a web interface and social media capabilities. They envisioned successive groups of students and partners in Thailand playing an active role in its ongoing creation and use.

“We’re seeking a way to invite Thai partners and community members to speak for themselves, to come into our classrooms through a wise and inclusive use of digital media,” says Buturian. “We want to hear their stories, understand their experiences, and as much as possible let the people and river be revealed in their own voices.”

Three women linking arms on a Thai road
Left to right: Cathy Solheim, Susan Andre, and Linda Buturian in Thailand, January 2013.

During winter break early in 2013, the trio set off for an intensive three weeks shooting video and taking photos in Thailand, gathering visual information that would allow them to tell a bigger story.

“Susan has an unbelievable eye for capturing large and small parts of the culture and natural world,” says Solheim. “As a family scientist, I tend to focus on faces and people. Plus, it’s been 35 years for me—everything gets to seem normal—so introducing first Linda and then Susan to Thailand was to see it with new eyes.”

Andre, a seasoned traveler, was impressed by the collision of the new and familiar.

“One minute you’re looking at this beautiful forest, thinking this could be home,” Andre says, “and the next minute you realize an elephant could walk out of that forest! There are so many layers—it reinforced the layeredness of the work I do. The technology allows for those layers.”

Together the three collected more images to tell the story of change on the Mekong, development, globalization, climate change, and the vulnerability of living downstream in a way that also speaks to other river communities.

“The Mississippi River is among the most polluted global rivers, with the fastest sinking delta in the world,” says Buturian. “If we can learn from communities on another river as they are navigating hard issues, and empower them as well, it is a mutually beneficial experience for students and for us.”

The face of the future

Solheim and Buturian were among the first faculty members to create a course accepted in the new Global Education Opportunity  (GEO) program, a CEHD study abroad opportunity created by teaming up with the University’s Learning Abroad Center.

Now they are busy developing “Global Change, Environment, and Families,” a three-week course in Thailand that will debut in May term 2015. Buturian can’t wait to introduce U students and alumni to the Mekong River, lush landscapes, delicious food, and people like Kru Tee.

Solheim and Buturian are also answering the call to speak to others about their collaboration, as they and Andre did at the campus conference this year.

“There is national interest in what they are doing,” says Gayle Woodruff, ’95, director of curriculum and campus internationalization for the University system. She has observed the evolution of their work and skill.

“Their ability to partner, to develop curriculum, to bring in learning technologies and expertise—all while continuing their scholarship—is remarkable,” says Woodruff. “Cathy and Linda are role models for those who are helping students develop global thinking.”

Buturian sees their collaboration as a necessary response to complex issues and the face of the future.

“More responses and solutions to problems can be recognized and collected by different perspectives coming together and attuned to them—in our case, writer, artist, and family social scientist,” she says. “What we care about is the vibrant thriving of communities—families, businesses, natural environment, and culture.”

Buturian paraphrases pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold when she invites people to “think like a river.” Think about who owns the water and whether it has agency of its own, she says. Think about the role of water in our everyday lives, says Solheim. Take a walk along a river or a boat ride, and listen.

See “Mekong Mosaic” and learn more about Cathy Solheim, Linda Buturian, and Susan Andre.

Learn more about the Mississippi River at University of Minnesota River Life.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photos by Susan Andre except as noted | Fall 2014