It is a brisk fall morning and the smell of autumn fills the air. The dark aura of the early morning is illuminated by a blinking ‘OPEN’ sign. Inside Old Soul Cafe, the cold fades away. The bell on the door dings as students trickle in, ready for breakfast.
A dozen students and their religion professor, Richard Swanson, enter the eclectic cafe, immersing themselves in the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Every Tuesday morning, Swanson and his students talk about religion and theology, among other topics, while they finish off plates of bacon, eggs and massive muffins.
The participating students, invited by Swanson, range in grades and majors. The only requirement to be invited is to prove a willingness to talk and listen. He reached out to students he wasn’t currently teaching, and the group evolved from there.
“Being interested in the study [of religion] was all I needed to know, so that we would eat together, think together and talk together,” Swanson said.
The conversation started with introductions, which include the answer to various questions posed by seniors Hannah Norem and Sophie Geister-Jones. From there, the topics ranged from BBQ sauce to The Sims to crazy grandma stories. The subjects shift to how Augustana was like during the Vietnam war and Swanson telling them the story of how he ended up at Augustana. The students listened to Swanson speak with a quiet attentiveness.
While the group sometimes discusses specific topics or articles, it often talks about whatever comes up. “It appears the genius of the group is its improvisatory nature,” Swanson said.
“I do enjoy hearing Dr. Swanson talk,” senior Austin Krohnke said. “I think he has a really neat way with words, and a lot of passions.”
The students respect Swanson and appreciate his decision to start the breakfast club.
“I think it’s a reflection of his character that he’s willing to provide this [experience] out of his own time and money in order to better the students here,” Krohnke said.
Swanson decided to start the club last year to see if it was something students would enjoy.
“It allowed me to connect with people that had shown themselves interested and interesting,” Swanson said.
For Swanson, the conversation allows for what he feels is true teaching.
“Teaching, I think, ought to be more like an apprenticeship,” Swanson said. “I want to work with people. I want to get to know them. I want to think with them, not just tell them stuff.”
Students in the breakfast club agree that the conversation is helpful and unique to the private school experience. Krohnke believes that the club represents the Augie Advantage.
Swanson knew that a group like this was possible at a small school the size of Augustana.
“One of the privileges of getting to teach at a joint like Augustana is that the students here are already really interesting to talk to, think and eat with,” Swanson said. “They are at the beginning edge of lifelong projects that are going to make a difference, and a chance to sit and listen as they dream those things into being is really fun.”
These off-campus experiences create a space for connections to form. “I think it helps me trust professors more in general, but specifically Dr. Swanson,” Krohnke said. Additionally, the conversations also create connections between students. “It’s a great way to meet and talk to new people,” Geister-Jones said.
Swanson hopes to continue the group as long as the students are interested. “I believe it’s good for people to eat together. It’s a good way to form community,” Swanson said.
By 8 a.m., students are leaving to start their day. Empty plates and full minds are the remnants of a morning of conversation and connection. “I just enjoy those conversations, and I enjoy those people,” Swanson. “They’re very serious about what they do, and I love listening to them as they hammer out how it is they’re going to do things they care about. They’re wonderfully quirky, and I like people like that.”