A Wild Classroom

Around this time last year I wrote an article for the UAJ about a semester-long academic road trip that Westminster College offered in fall, 2017 through its environmental studies program. Since then Westminster has continued to expand its field-based studies programs, most notably through the creation of an outdoor education and leadershipmajor. As a part of that major nine students, a rotating cast of college faculty, and I, as a full-time instructor, spent seventy-five days this fall participating in a wilderness-based field semester.

As a part of this field semester, the students and I spent ten days backpacking in the Wind River Mountains, a week paddling and rafting on the Green River through Flaming Gorge, eleven days rock climbing in City of Rocks, fourteen days backpacking near the Dirty Devil River, nine days taking a Wilderness First Responder course at the Capitol Reef Field Station, a week canyoneering near Horseshoe Canyon, a week backpacking in Grand Gulch, and a few days wrapping up the semester at the Rio Mesa Field Station. Some might look at this description and wonder how students earn a full semester’s worth of college credits “Just by playing in the woods.” Sure, there were many points on the semester where it felt like we were just out there having fun. But I can also say that the value of what I saw every student learn on this semester far outweighed anything that I felt like I gained when I was a student taking more traditional classes on campus.

The curriculum for this field semester included helping students develop effective leadership skills, learn how to design and facilitate educational experiences that cater to a variety of learning styles, become competent living and working in a wilderness setting, and develop a connection with the natural world. By living in an environment where we were fully immersed in this curriculum, where we experienced all our joys and challenges, all our successes and failures, together, we collectively had an experience far more powerful and lasting than would have been possible in the comfort of an air-conditioned building on campus.

But don’t just take my word for it. I asked some of the students to share the most significant aspects of their experience. Here’s some of what they said (and a few of my thoughts too):

What’s your favorite memory from the field semester?

Haley Schiek: One of my favorite memories is more of a feeling than anything else. The feeling of comradery, and also absurdity, of what we were doing together. My heart felt full and fluttery, even though my pack was weighing me down. I was thirsty, exhausted, annoyed, ready to be done, but this moment lifted me up. We had stopped on a service road, all together, lost in the desert in the middle of the night. But from the light of our dimming headlamps, all I could see were smiling, golden faces. Proud faces. Happy faces. Entirely present-right here right now faces. Getting lighter and lighter as the words flew out of our mouths and into the nighttime air.  We sang “American Pie,” first slowly and quietly, then at the top of our lungs, belting out the lyrics we knew, mumbling through the parts we weren’t so sure about. We forgot about being lost. We forgot about being tired. We forgot that this moment wasn’t exactly part of our “plan.” But there we were, together. It was the best feeling in the whole world.

Julia Vorsteveld: There are millions (not an exaggeration) of beautiful, favorite memories from the field semester. One of my favorites occurred early in the semester, about four days in, in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. We spent the better part of our morning making our way to Knapsack Col, a saddle between two peaks with breathtaking views in either direction. We danced on the snow in celebration, took a few jolly pictures, then began discussing how to descend down the other side. To us students it seemed obvious that the only way down was to scramble down a massive boulder field. “What about the glacier, could we slide down that?” asked Tiana, one of our instructors for this section. We all looked at each other, apprehensive at first, then a look of excitement and mischief spread across our faces in smiles. The runnout was long and clear of potentially dangerous rocks. “Okay!” Tiana gave us a briefing on how to glissade and then began to make her way down, simultaneously knocking her boots and digging her hands into the snow. I decided to go last, hoping to get a front seat to witness four of my peers doing something new and challenging for the first time in their lives. Like magic, fear dissolved, only to be replaced with calculated focus and a childlike sense of wonder. One after another, we descended a few hundred feet sliding on our backs, then our bellies to practice self-arresting.  Our glissading adventure was the first of many more learning opportunities that came up naturally, seamlessly, and right in step with our development as outdoor educators. We had simultaneously pushed our comfort zones, assessed risk, learned and practiced a new skill, and best yet, bonded over it all.

Brett: One memory that stands out to me is soaking in the Durfee Hot Springs in Almo, ID after spending the day climbing at Castle Rocks State Park. We had been climbing for about a week in City of Rocks, and the showers at the hot springs were one of the biggest motivators for going. After shedding a thick layer of organic grime, we all sunk our sore muscles into the geothermally heated pools. For an hour we played with the toy basketball hoop, tried to swim across the pool underwater, and had handstand contests, feeling like little kids on the first day of summer vacation. As we got tired we retreated to one of the smaller, warmer pools and watched the sky and clouds temporarily catch on fire, burning a fierce orange before turning to a deep purple ash. Pure happiness radiated from each of us in a way that seems more rare than it should be. In that moment we were content; content with where we were, content with who we were with, content with ourselves. I hope we are all able to continue to have moments like that. 

What has been your most significant learning from the semester?

Maddy Kane: The most significant thing I learned on the semester was balancing flexibility with firmness, so to speak. Being able to go with the flow and keep a level head through challenges is vitally important in life, particularly in outdoor recreation, but standing your ground and vocalizing your thoughts and beliefs can be just as important. Advocating for yourself and making yourself heard can be hard when working with peers, and knowing when to take a step back and let others lead can be challenging as well. Finding the right balance of being an active follower and a strong leader was the most significant learning I did on the semester. 

Julia: Although nearly three months have passed since we returned from the field semester, I’m still discovering things I took away that are now popping up in my life. Right now, with a new semester on campus starting, I’m especially reminded of how much the field semester brought me closer to myself. I learned how to show up for myself, how to take care of myself, and how to advocate for myself. In turn, I saw that positively reflected in the way I learn, the way I work with  and lead others, and the way I develop my attitude about a situation. An example of a time I showed up for myself on the semester was when I finally told a peer about something going on in my personal life that was increasingly preoccupying my thoughts and energy. I had created a habit of not reaching out and persuading myself I could handle it all on my own. The truth finally came out one evening, and there’s nowhere to hide when you live with nine other people.

This was all significant for me because I had developed a habit of prioritizing myself last in many parts of my life. It’s safe to say that until the field semester, this learning was absent from my life. How can I expect myself to grow and thrive if I neglect my own needs? How can I help others when I can’t help myself? I’m still working on this, I think it’s a lifelong practice, but it feels pretty amazing to see such a clear transition of this learning from the semester come back with me into my life here in Salt Lake.

Haley: I did not realize how deep and yet undiscussed native history in Utah is. Not even looking for it I found remnants of Utah’s past, of its original homemakers. An arrowhead laying in the sand, petroglyphs carved into a rock wall I walked past by chance. The tiny town of Blanding, with more history than it seemed some of even the locals knew. I did not know about Bears Ears. I did not know what it took for the native people to get it to become a monument, for them to acquire some sense of justice and respect from the government. I did not know of the wonders woven into Grand Gulch, the memories of generations that it holds. From this I learned the importance of protecting these spaces and supporting these people in protecting their culture, supporting them through elections. Voting. I need to vote. It is not something I have done before, but I intend to change that moving forward.

Did the field semester change your relationship with wilderness? How?

Julia: I’m much more observant and curious when I travel in the wilderness now. It was an ongoing theme over the course of the semester and the places we went to “get to know a place”. At first I didn’t really see the value in that. So what if I know it? What does that do? However, I  think knowing a place is the first step in connecting with it on a more nuanced level than simply observing and admiring its inherent beauty.

All the land we lived in and traveled through has its own history in a variety of ways. We taught each other lessons about the places we were in throughout the semester. A few examples include the geology of the Dirty Devil River in south-central Utah, the fictitious Almo Massacre outside of the City of Rocks in Idaho, and the distribution of the Colorado River’s water throughout the West. We also continuously learned about land use, management, and conservation from each other and a Bureau of Land Management representative.

Perhaps what stood out to me and interested me the most was Native American history and current issues in these places. Since a trip I took to a reservation in South Dakota when I was sixteen I’ve really made a point to educate myself about an otherwise overlooked issue in the United States. To study theses places and concerns in the field was especially eye-opening. This is something I’m also still working on in bringing into my academic life, through research, writing, and advocacy. These stories and histories made my connection with wilderness more well-rounded and profound. I’m excited to keep getting to know all the places I travel to, whether they’re wilderness or a city.

Maddy: This semester deepened my appreciation for the wilderness and strengthened my relationship with it. I think spending so much time in the wilderness helped me further see that the wilderness is a gift that needs to be cherished and protected. We were able to talk to a lot of people who work in the areas we were visiting, many of whom had ideas about the wilderness which starkly contrasted with my own personal views. If anything changed about my relationship with the wilderness, it was that it broadened my understanding of the different ways humans understand and use the environment around them. 

Haley: The field semester intimately introduced me to beauty of the natural world. It also demystified spending time in it. Backpacking can be challenging. The desert has its threats and dangers for us humans, as do the high mountains and alpine regions, but these are not impossible terrains to explore. There is safety in the wild. A deep peace, a slower pace that I cannot achieve anywhere else.

What advice would you give to a student considering going on the semester?

Haley: Go. If you think you can’t, think again. You do not have to have x, y, z skills or experiences first. You start where you are and you build from there and odds are you will have nine to eleven other people cheering you on the entire time. Remember that everyone gets insecure sometimes. Everyone feels fear, especially of the unknown. But you take it day by day. You have this chance to totally put yourself out there, in all senses of that phrase, and grow. And learn. And lead. Everyday. You do not have to feel totally “ready” or “capable” or “good enough.” You are allowed to wonder if this experience is right for you, even as you are halfway through it! Things get tough, but you get tougher. You laugh a lot. You build friendships and create memories that most other people will never get to understand. I am eternally grateful for making the choice to go. And I am so excited for everyone else who will make that choice, too.

Maddy: Your classmates are all you really have out there, so cherish them. Nurture and build your relationships with them. Take time for yourself when you need it, but lean on the people around you and be there for others to lean on you when they need it. Attitude is everything, and it’s also contagious to those around you; a bad attitude can spread through a group like the plague. Offer support when things go wrong and celebrate together when they go right. Accept them as your weird little family for the next 75 days and always remember you’re in it together. And COMMUNICATE always, about everything, all the time. 

Julia: Throw yourself into it. Cherish your time with the people and the places you are in. Keep an open mind. Seize the opportunity to be uncomfortable and grow from it. Advocate for yourself and your needs. Ask a lot of stupid questions. Then ask five more. Be silly and share a lot of laughs with your peers. Do the things that scare you. Look at the stars. Take moments of solitude for yourself. Write about your experiences. Bring your own creative flare into your leadership style. Ask for help if you need it. Confront your peers if you’re having a problem. Learn as much as you can. Reflect thoughtfully on your experiences and how they play into the rest of your life. Practice your communication skills while you’re in a supportive environment. Doodle all the beautiful things you see. Take advantage of the times you get to explore and play. Rely on your peers for support, and support your peers in their times of need. Get to know all your instructors- they’re amazing. Rest when you need to. Go into this experience with an open, growth-oriented mindset. You’re going to have the time of your life.

Kellie Gerbers (Professor, Outdoor Education and Leadership):Extended field time is something that can’t be replicated in the classroom, and it is a tremendous privilege to be able to carve out enough time and space while pursuing a college degree to be able to spend so many consecutive days in the field. I’d encourage students who are considering an extended field experience as part of their program of study to reach out to students and faculty who have led or participated in these types of experiences to get their advice, recommendations, etc. Every experience is bound to be different on account of different people, itineraries, weather, abilities, etc., so it’s hard to give a “one size fits all” description of what an extended field experience can do for a participant. With that being said, things that seem to be consistent among participants are: 1) Everyone hits high points and low points during the semester—you can anticipate and prepare for these as much as you can, but the reality is that when you hit a low point, it just feels terrible. Know that the low point isn’t permanent and these low points often lead to the most significant learning experiences. 2) Everyone seems to learn a little humility at some point or another on these programs. Embrace knowing what you don’t know and use mistakes as an opportunity to improve. 3) Time goes by fast—there will be days when you are literally counting down the minutes until you can move onto the next section/activity, but when you look back on the semester as a whole, you’ll be shocked how quickly it goes by. Be present. Enjoy the people and the surroundings. Again, it’s a rare privilege to spend extended time in the field—take in all the sights, sounds, and lessons!

As an instructor I always wrap up this type of extended wilderness experience with the question, “How will you apply what you have learned here to the rest of your life?” If we go into the field and have a fun, challenging, and fulfilling experience but then leave that experience behind when we reach the trailhead, then what have we really learned? Living and traveling in the outdoors, through creating an obvious connection between action and consequence, depending on and supporting our fellow group members, pushing us out of our comfort zones, and removing the excessive level of distraction that exists in the modern world, creates a perfect classroom for learning many life lessons. In the wilderness we learn to take care of ourselves and our group, build trusting relationships with the people around us, communicate effectively, tolerate adversity and uncertainty, live in the moment, appreciate living simply, accept the things we cannot control, and control what we can. These lessons, and many more, do not only apply in the mountains and deserts of the world. In fact, I think that applying these to the rest of our lives might be the most important thing we can do.

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