NOLS Thanks In-Town Staff
Each year, NOLS hands out a few awards to instructors, community members, alumni, and in-town staff to recognize their hard work, dedication, and positive changes in the world.
Please join us in congratulating this year's NOLS in-town awardees Alexa Callison-Burch, Debra East and Chris Agnew!
Alexa Callison-Burch: We feel blessed everyday that we get to work with Alexa
Alexa came to NOLS in the summer of 2006 when she completed her first NOLS course, an Absaroka Backpacking course. She is remembered by her instructors, as being passionate about wilderness, having excellent expedition behavior, and fulfilling a role as a mentor for other students. She was engaged with all aspects of the course. This promising performance led her instructors to encourage her to complete a fall Outdoor Educator semester as a step toward becoming an instructor. She completed her instructor course in the spring of 2007 and began working field courses. Since that time, Alexa has worked over 60 field weeks as a hiking and sea kayaking instructor providing many students with inspiring energy and education as they embarked on their own wilderness expeditions. She is committed to providing each student with the opportunity to have life changing experiences on every course she works.
In 2011, Alexa completed a Wilderness EMT course in Lander. She then went on to complete an Instructor Training Course with NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute in November of 2012. Since that time, she has worked WFRs, WFAs, and WFRRs. She is a natural fit given both her organizational skills and teaching acumen.
Alexa’s in-town career began in the NOLS Field Staffing office in 2009, where she helped match field instructors with their courses and students. She moved over to NOLS Rocky Mountain as the evacuation coordinator in 2010. In this role, Alexa has modeled excellence by helping our instructors and the branch manage the diversity of infield challenges and evacuations that arise. She is known and admired for her calm and patient communication style that allows her to support students and instructors in the field. Alexa’s care and empathy for each individual student is felt by all. We have become a more compassionate school due to her influence.
Debra East: For her commitment to inclusion and can-do attitude
After years of running the underground bed and breakfast for NOLS field instructors, Debra began her official NOLS career in 2003. Over the next four years, she shared her skills and passion with such varied departments as purchasing, admissions, marketing, and WMI. In each of these roles she was valued for her upbeat, positive attitude and willingness to do whatever needed doing.
Since joining NOLS in a full-time capacity in 2007, Debra has committed her energies to excellence in customer service. A recent recipient of a Moving Hands Scholarship with American Sign Language interpretation noted, “Her clear and detailed communication, support, and encouragement makes me all the more sure that the National Outdoor Leadership School is the place to be when studying and appreciating the outdoors.”
In 2008, Debra stepped up to become the WMI admissions supervisor. In this role, she has mentored many individuals. One former employee shared, “She allows employees the opportunity and space to navigate their positions and thrive while she stands nearby.” Another reached out to say, “I can’t thank her enough for giving me confidence as a worker and a woman in the workplace.” Debra’s employees hope one day to receive her highest compliment, a new database feature named for them.
Debra’s passionate and tireless work to help NOLS be a school that welcomes everyone has resulted in significant increases in students supported through scholarships, Veteran’s Administration funds, Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards, and most recently 529 Education Awards. Her work to develop an agreement with Western State Colorado University helped students benefit from, and NOLS secure, nearly $1 million in tuition dollars this past year.
Debra goes above and beyond to build relationships with students she supports. After this most recent Wilderness Medicine Expedition for physicians and nurses, three students shared it was their interactions on the phone with Debra that solidified their decision to take the course—because their questions and uncertainties were so well addressed.
Chris Agnew: For his outstanding contributions to our students and mission
Chris took a Spring Semester in Kenya in 1998, and his instructor wrote, “Mr. Energy had a positive effect on every situation he was involved in. He plays hard and works equally hard. He assumed leadership roles and actively learned the stations on the sailing dhow. He was a role model of good expedition behavior to the rest of the expedition members.” Another instructor added, “His undefeatable positive attitude, sense of humor, navigation ability, and easy-going style all contributed to his selection as small group leader.”
In May of 2001, Chris took an Instructor Course at NOLS Rocky Mountain and followed that by working his first course—a July North Cascades Wilderness Course—as a patrol leader.
In January of 2007, Chris transitioned into administrative work as WMI staffing manager at NOLS Headquarters. Staff who worked with him during his in-town years commented that, “he is exceptionally strong in the area of judgment and decision making. He is a critical and organized thinker who weighs the variables quickly and makes sound decisions. He is an articulate and direct communicator who quickly grasps the tenor of the conversation at hand regardless of its impromptu or challenging nature."
Since 2010, Chris has served as Pacific Northwest director with additional oversight over both NOLS India and NOLS Scandinavia. During his time in this role, NOLS has increased the number of students we educate on our Scandinavia program, moved to a more permanent location in Sweden, and created a legal entity in that country. We have also expanded our course offerings at the PNW with the addition of new courses like the Pacific Northwest Spring Quarter and the Pacific Northwest Mountaineering and Sailing and introduced adventure age programming. In India, NOLS has maneuvered through numerous, complex Indian bureaucratic systems and introduced the Himalaya Cultural Expedition. In addition to his directorship responsibilities Chris also currently serves on the leadership team for the NOLS Strategic Plan goal for Exceptional Student Experiences.
What Wilderness Means to Us
Dale Lescher photo
Wild places are an important source of wonder and inspiration in my life. Having and taking advantage of access to wilderness shapes my values, gives me sanctuary for recreation, makes me mindful of how my actions are a part of the world as a whole, and connect me with people in a safe, non-judgmental space. Experiencing and sharing this brings me satisfaction and joy. In this age of fast-paced communication, growth, and change in our society, I think that it is particularly important to preserve wilderness areas and encourage Americans to see, feel, touch, and play in the amazing natural resources that are our wild areas.
I have been uplifted by the overwhelming support for Expedition Denali. It warms my heart to meet people who are touched by wild places and to participate in encouraging all Americans to find themselves in nature.
—Adina Scott, Expedition Denali team member and NOLS graduate
Introducing the First Annual NOLS Exploration Film Tour
This year marks the inaugural NOLS Exploration Film Tour, a series of free events hosted by NOLS that feature outstanding short films created by or about NOLS grads and instructors. The tour has been a hit thus far. After four events—Fairbanks, Anchorage, Bellingham, and Olympia—we are still having fun and learning a lot.
The Exploration Film Tour aimed to be something different. The main goal was to encourage increased participation in outdoor activities by making them more accessible. Secondly, we wanted to broaden recognition and a better understanding of the NOLS name and mission. All showings were free, making room for the curious as well as those already connected to the world of outdoor adventure. We maintained a high standard for films included in this tour and managed to gather nine that inspired, challenged stereotypical cultural norms about who the outdoor enthusiast is, and encouraged critical thought about the outdoors.
All the films are being well received at each location. After each show, there are many thanks from attendees and requests to return next year. Highlights for the audiences have included Craig Muderlak’s film “Maiden Light,” as well as “Golden Ears” and “An American Ascent,” a film about NOLS Expedition Denali. Viewers have raved about watching women climb hard, educational and environmental themes, and the focus on real people rather than sponsored, professional athletes.
We are looking forward to bringing the tour to Birmingham, Atlanta, Greensboro, and Cookeville. Learn more and get your free ticket at explorationfilmtour.com
Lander Valley High School and NOLS team up for incoming freshmen orientation
On August 12th and 13th NOLS teamed up with Lander Valley High School to provide a taste of outdoor recreation to the freshmen orientation. This is the second year that NOLS has helped out with the freshmen orientation and NOLS hopes to make it an annual event for years to come.
Lander Valley High School is located at the foothills of the Wind River Mountains in the small, tight knit, and active community of Lander, Wyoming, NOLS’ original home and headquarters. Kids spend their time cruising around on bikes, playing video games, joining high school sports teams, and goofing off like kids should. Many families take their kids out into the Winds for family trips and some parents take their kids rock climbing or backcountry skiing. These kids are so lucky to have so many unique opportunities for recreation, and many don’t realize how special of a place they live in.
This past week, NOLS ran a special course for students at the local high school who are going into their senior year. They took students who agreed to be “senior mentors” out to the Winds where they got to spend a week backpacking with instructors Thea Sittler and Jonathan Brooks.
The course almost summited Wind River Peak but got to witness some extreme weather instead, including an impressive hail storm! They got to experience greeting a day with a pre-breakfast sunrise hike and they got to see some alpine wildlife. They learned how to cook in the backcountry and learned how to work as a well-oiled machine. They were allowed to make mistakes and help each other out and, like on any NOLS course, they learned how much fun simply hanging out around a whisper lite stove without life’s usual distractions can be. All the while, these students got the added bonus of being able to say they were hanging out in their home mountain range.
When the senior mentors got back to Lander, it became their turn to share the importance of being outside in your backyard. Along with a fleet of NOLS instructors, the senior mentors got to take any incoming freshmen who were interested up to Sinks Canyon for a few hours of rock climbing as a part of their freshmen orientation. Instructors taught some basic safety rules and explained the rope systems, while the senior mentors became instant leaders and took the reins to coach the freshman through tying the figure eight, belaying, and climbing technique. Watching students climb at Sinks, it quickly became apparent why climbing is such a great addition to a freshman orientation. The sport has so many assets which teach so many different skills and ideas.
For example, there is a learning curve to the rope systems, which challenges people before they even leave the ground.
“This friction device pulls the rope that way and then you lock the carabineer and spin it that way so that it doesn’t cross load, and then the load bearing strand is pulled downwards; do multiple wraps and make sure the prussik will self tend then double check for redundancy before weighting the system…”
As a climber myself, it took years to get used to translating sentences like these. Rock climbing requires focus and an open mind to learn how all of the systems work. While the systems taught to the freshmen at Sinks Canyon were relatively simple compared to the one above, remembering that most of them had never heard of gri-gris before really gave me an appreciation for how quickly students can wrap their minds around new ideas. They learned their knots quickly and got the belaying motions down almost instantly.
While some students were willing to blindly (sometimes literally, with a blindfold on!!) throw their weight onto the rope, others were more skeptical and hesitant to trust the rope systems and their belayer. They double checked each other’s’ systems while a NOLS instructor watched, used commands to communicate that they are ready to climb, and then left the ground once they know they fully trusted the situation.
Another important lesson learned from climbing is how to be resourceful. Students were equipped with everything necessary to get up the wall, along with a quick demonstration and explanation of climbing technique. Once a student is on the wall, they have to figure out how to use their resources (shoes, limbs, rock etc.) mostly on their own. In high school, students bring their own strengths to the table, which are unique to their past experiences and their interests. With each new activity they try, each homework assignment, each challenging moment, and each decision they make, they have to figure out how to use their resources to problem solve their way through.
Lastly, and potentially the best part of climbing, is that it can be awkward as heck! This is especially true among a group of newer climbers. Instructors watched students slowly work their way up walls, flail, fall, etc. Students learned that it is awkward to jam a foot in a crack, stand on it, and then realize that it must be taken out in the reverse order. They also learned that, despite feeling confident with your feet on a small little foot hold, its possible to have your toe slip off unexpectedly at any time!
From finding jelly beans perched on climbing holds, to blindfolding each other, to dumping bottles of water on each other to beat the heat, the students got a solid introduction to what rock climbing at your home crag is really like and the staff found it super satisfying to introduce students to their local recreation opportunities.
At the end of the day it was inspiring to listen to instructors equate lessons learned from climbing to life skills needed to make it through high school. It was neat to see how easy it is to bridge the gap between academic education and adventure education. From learning technical rope skills to developing trust and a good mindset, NOLS was thrilled to provide a great climbing orientation for these incoming Lander Valley High School freshmen and to incorporate some appropriate outdoor education to the start of their new academic journey.
Good luck to this group of students and may the send-train continue!
Written by Kaybe Loughran, NOLS Rocky Mountain Intern
NOLS Instructor Talks Leave No Trace Practices and Perspectives
In a recent interview on Alaska Public Media's Outdoor Explorer program, NOLS Instructor Tre-C Dumais speaks about the ethics and practices of Leave No Trace (LNT). In addition to practical tips, listen in for a rich discussion about wild places and their role in our lives, wilderness ethics on a NOLS course, and the way we can all preserve the value wilderness for future generations. Enjoy!
Click here for current LNT courses offered through NOLS.
'An American Ascent' Screened Before a Sold-Out Audience
By Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, NOLS Diversity and Inclusion Manager and Expedition Denali Coordinator
After a year long tour in which the Expedition Denali team inspired over 8,000 young people across the nation with their story, the film documenting their historic journey was screened before an audience of over 300 in Washington D.C. in late June. Titled “An American Ascent,” Distill Productions' hourlong film narrated by well-known Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson told the story of the team’s fears and expectations before the climb, their expedition on the mountain, and how they felt when they had to turn back with the summit in sight due to an unprecedented lightning storm. Mountaineering icon Conrad Anker and author John Krakauer make guest appearances.
Watch a trailer for the film:
Adventure films can be many things. They generally are entertaining, dramatic, adrenaline-inducing, and feature “sick” beats paired with action-packed scenes of the heroes dangling from dangerous precipices. This film stands out. It was many of the things that mountaineering films are. It was funny and it was inspiring. But it was also brutally honest. It was a true story of the team’s journey with no spin and no embellishments.
One mother of a young man who is deaf wrote in response to the film: “KiJuan ... has been told many times what he ‘can’t do’ and he has defied the odds every time. I knew this film would grab him and now he is very determined to do something similar.”
Another family brought two of their neighbors’ children who had previously not been exposed to camping.
“A team member made an interesting point that you can only choose ‘what I want to do when I grow up’ from the options that you know are available,” they wrote. “Now my two friends have a new option they didn’t know about before. If nothing else they now know they ‘have permission’ to use America’s parks just like everybody else. Thank you to NOLS for your courses and efforts, they are life-changing.”
Photo Courtesy of Rosemary Saal. (L to R) Expedition Denali members Scott Briscoe, Robby ReChord, Erica Wynn, Billy Long, Stephen DeBerry, Rosemary Saal, Stephen Shobe, and Ryan Mitchell at the film screening.
The film screening was a capstone event to two years of hard work by many people, but we cannot be complacent. Our expedition to change the face of the outdoors continues. Learn more about Expedition Denali here.
Indigenous Voices Speaking Out for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)
Miho Aida is an accomplished documentary filmmaker and former NOLS field instructor. Please join her on Monday June 30th for the Skagit Valley screening of “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins – Gwich’in Women Speak." The film provides a platform for Arctic indigenous Gwich’in women to speak out and inspire audiences around the country to protect their sacred land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska from oil drilling. The short documentary won the Audience Choice Award at the 2014 Earth Port Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary Short at the 2013 American Indian Film Festival. Miho is currently doing a west coast tour on her bicycle to share her film!
Monday, June 30th at NOLS Pacific Northwest (in dining hall)
20950 Bulson Road, Mt. Vernon, 98274
Overcoming Uncertainty: On and off the Battlefield
This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of The Leader
On June 14, 2012, while leading a Marine Special Operations Team on patrol in Afghanistan, Captain Derek Herrera was shot. The bullet lodged between two vertebrae in his spine, paralyzing him from the chest down.
Seven years, nearly to the day, before that fateful patrol, Herrera and 11 fellow midshipmen walked out of Alaska’s Chugach Mountains. The team had completed the third-ever Naval Academy Mountaineering Expedition designed and led by NOLS Professional Training. Beyond leadership and communication skills, the midshipmen encountered something unfamiliar: uncertainty.
Until that point in his military career, Herrera had been told what to wear, where to be, and what to do when he got there. At the beginning of his course, Herrera and his coursemates found it challenging to function without a concrete plan, familiarity with the environment, or pre-set culture and rules. When pressed, his instructors stated, “We are going to go here and then make a decision on what to do next.” The midshipmen, like all NOLS students, had to forge a plan together as they went. They had to adjust to this newfound self-reliance, but Herrera realized there are many times in life, and the military especially, where patience is essential to a situation.
“At a certain point you will realize that you have the information you need to make a decision, or that you have to make that decision with the information you have currently,” explained Herrera. “This simple understanding has helped me immensely throughout my career.”
While Herrera had been afforded the opportunity to lead before, it was never with such purpose. The NOLS environment allowed him to lead a team to accomplish very challenging tasks.
“I’ve been able to draw on the things I learned during my expedition to perform better as a person and as a leader of Marines,” he stated. “I leverage these lessons often. Everything from creating culture and shared vision within teams to managing expedition behavior has proved valuable for me.”
Herrera raves that courses for midshipmen are “uniquely suited to offer a complimentary experience to the skills taught at the Naval Academy.” He believes while academic frameworks are important to learn what people think and why they may act the way they do, getting out and leading is the best way to learn leadership. He’s so passionate about this philosophy, he’s centered his business around it.
He founded the Special Operations Leadership Experience, which employs military–trained special operators to teach civilians how to lead in challenging, uncertain environments. While based on military leadership training, Herrera admits the framework is very similar to the NOLS leadership model. It focuses on three leadership truths: situational awareness, self-awareness, and communication. Like NOLS, he believes leadership can be learned and anybody can be a leader; it just takes time, practice, and experience.
What is so remarkable is that he’s doing all this as a wounded warrior. Perhaps it’s his type-A personality that won’t let him quit or his unfailing optimism. Perhaps it’s his keen ability to adapt to any situation. Or maybe it’s his commitment to serving the people and country he loves and who have given him so much. For all of these reasons and so many more, Herrera is a truly inspirational NOLS leader.
-By Larkin Flora, Development Communications Coordinator
For other articles like this, check out the current and previous editions of the NOLS Alumni Publication, The Leader
Get to Know NOLS Alaska
We got a quick Q&A session in with Janeen Hutchins, NOLS Alaska Director, during a busy Presidents Day weekend.
If you had one sentence to describe your staff, you would say:
Our staff are dedicated, passionate, fun and a tight knit group; we work hard and play hard!
How long have you been Director at NOLS Alaska?
I have had the honor to serve NOLS Alaska students and staff since April 2012.
What is your background with NOLS? Or how did it all begin for you?
When I was a junior in college I saw a presentation on NOLS and I instantly knew it was the type of adventure and education I was looking for. That summer I embarked on a Wind River Mountaineering course and I was hooked. It was a life-changing experience and influences everything I do, even today.
My course gave me the skills and resume builder I needed to start working at a teen adventure program. A few years later I was back at NOLS for my instructor course.
Since 2001 I have been lucky enough to be a part of others' life-changing experiences at NOLS both as an instructor and while supporting courses from in-town.
After serving the school at NOLS Rocky Mountain, NOLS Southwest, NOLS Professional Training and in human resources, I landed my dream job at NOLS Alaska.
What is your favorite aspect of running courses in your part of the world?
Alaska is majestic. Whether sea kayaking amongst calving glaciers or climbing snow covered peaks, around every corner there is a breathtaking view and you feel as if you were the first person to step foot in the area. The mountains are huge and the sense of adventure is unparalleled.
What unique or particularly appealing aspect of Alaska do you think potential students should know about?
The "wow factor." I can't say it enough that Alaska is impressive. It really is! They say everything in Alaska is bigger and it's true. The mountains, the glaciers, the forests, the tundra, everywhere you go you are surrounded by immense beauty. Then add doing something rewarding like crossing a glacier or the thrill of having your groceries delivered by a bush plane, it's a true adventure!
What would you say most surprises students when they arrive or during their course in that part of the world?
The midnight sun. In the summer, the sun sets after midnight and rises well before the early bird. The days seem endless and there is no need for a headlamp—it's awesome!
Explore Alaska futher by finding the perfect course here.
Congratulations to our Olympian!
Holly Brooks (WFA ’02 and WFR ’04) completed her second race in the Olympics today, and everyone at NOLS would like to congratulate her on all she has accomplished as an athlete. In her second Olympics, the Alaskan placed 35th in the women’s 10k classic today after taking 47th in the skiathlon Saturday.
Brooks in action during the FIS Cross Country World Cup Women's 10km Mass Start on December 17, 2011 in Rogla, Slovenia. (Photo by Stanko Gruden/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
Skiing is not just a race for Holly. In her free time, she admits, she likes to ski—ski tour, crust ski and backcountry ski. According to her biography on the U.S. Ski Team website, she has become a poster child for active, healthy lifestyles in her new home of Alaska.
“Luckily I live in a place where the outdoors are extremely accessible, and I love living in a community where my friends and peers are as active and adventurous as I am,” she said.
NOLS is proud to have played a role in the life of someone making such a difference while following her dreams. Congratulations, Holly!