Taking a STEP in the Right Direction
After years spent working in the field with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Dr. Tracy Baynes made several astute observations about the students who participate in outdoor courses. They gain a tremendous amount from their time in the field. They grow by being pushed outside of their comfort zones. They have life transforming experiences. They are also, as Tracy noted, mostly wealthy and white.
Curiosity duly peaked by her findings, Tracy began to look at education statistics and noticed a huge achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. She also found that programs geared towards struggling, underprivileged youth existed but there were few— if any— programs designed to provide support to disadvantaged students who excel.
Recognizing a need, Tracy created the Student Expedition Program (STEP) in 2002 to “equip low-income, first-generation college-bound Arizona teens with the internal tools to succeed in college. Our overall goal is to help break the chain of generational poverty in the families with which we work by preparing students for success in higher education.”
“The first step to success is belief in oneself. The goal of the NOLS course is to provide students with an experience that helps them to know internally that they have what it takes to achieve whatever they want, especially recognizing that they can be a pioneer to college,” Tracy said.
Since its founding, STEP has seen all of its 112 graduates successfully complete high school, and 81 percent are in college or have graduated from college. Moreover, STEP graduates are attending some of the most well respected academic institutions in the nation including Georgetown University, Bowdoin College, Smith College, University of Notre Dame, U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy, University of Southern California (USC), University of Richmond, Lehigh University, and Pitzer College.
When asked about her long-term vision for STEP, Tracy said she hopes to “reach as many high-achieving, low-income students as possible and eventually turn over the leadership of the program to STEP alum.”
Sierra Nevada College Students Go Deep… Into the Canyons
This May, a group of 20 Sierra Nevada College (SNC) students will leave the comfort of their mountainous California home and take part in a 21-day leadership expedition into the deep canyons of Utah.
Rosie Hackett, director of outdoor adventure leadership at Sierra Nevada College, was instrumental in establishing the partnership between NOLS and SNC. She is confident that “NOLS is the leader in outdoor education. They go the farthest and the deepest. They employ the best of the best in regard to outdoor professionals. I believe in the potency of the [NOLS] leadership curriculum.”
Equipped with a well-prepared list of objectives, Hackett approached NOLS Professional Training three years ago to discuss the creation of a custom course designed to meet her program’s needs. Specifically, she wanted students to increase their technical competence in new and challenging terrain.
“The greater the challenge, the greater the potential for growth for my leadership students,” Hackett reflected. She also ensured that course participants had the opportunity to lead, facilitate, and teach as much as possible. Finally, LNT Master Educator certification and academic requirements involving reading and writing are key components of the expedition.
Hackett explained that her Outdoor Adventure Leadership (ODAL) students have many opportunities to partake in short field expeditions. However, she noted, “Anyone can hack three days. The true learning occurs after 10 days— groups start being real with each other. They get uncomfortable with themselves and they storm. Then they get comfortable with their new ‘uncomfortable state’ and they norm. And, with a whole lot of competence, collaboration, resourcefulness, and perseverance, they perform at any task put in front of them.”
Expedition participant, Camilla Rinman, commented, “The [NOLS] course was one of the most significant experiences I have had in the outdoors.” Rinman said, "I regularly apply the mindset I gained from the course to everyday life— that I can be successful at what I want and it is possible for me to create a career doing what I love.”
Another course graduate, Savannah Hoover, shared two truths that are etched into her mind after her time in Utah: “One, love this earth and treat it well. Always consider where your resources come from and minimize your waste as much as possible. Leave every place a little better than you found it, and inspire others to do the same. Two, never forget your sense for adventure. A passion for the unknown, for the wild, can often be squelched in a world where everything is ‘already discovered.’ There's too much on this earth to explore and enjoy and protect—we must go out there and find it ourselves to witness the intrinsic value of what the wild has to offer.”
Reflecting on the benefits gained from the extended expedition, Hackett commented, “The takeaways are endless— self awareness, sustainability, endurance, and compassion just to name a few.” She went on to explain, “The greatest lessons from the field that are transferred to the frontcountry are intrinsic motivation and purpose. With motivation and purpose anything is possible!”
Expedition Denali Launches Kickstarter Campaign for Feature Film
This June, nine mountaineers will attempt to become the first all-African-American expedition to climb Denali (a.k.a. Mount McKinley) in Alaska. This team’s goals go far beyond summiting North America’s highest peak and making history. Their ultimate objective is to inspire people of all colors, young and old, to get more engaged in the great outdoors.
Expedition Denali: Inspiring Diversity in the Outdoors will happen. How many people know about it—how far the team’s inspiration and awareness reaches—is another matter.
Through a Kickstarter campaign launched yesterday, Expedition Denali will raise funds to create a powerful, far-reaching documentary on the team’s journey to the top of North America’s loftiest, most iconic summit. From putting a camera team on the mountain with the expedition to producing, promoting, and distributing the resulting feature-length film, this project will increase awareness of the importance of exploring natural environments and make clear that it’s high time to invite all races, all ethnicities—all people—to inspirational outdoor playgrounds.
Given the powerful, reverberating echo of media—how it can trigger conversation and spark awareness to the furthest corners of our planet—this Kickstarter project and the resulting documentary is for anyone who has tapped into the inspirational, transformative, healing power of our natural environment. More specifically, it will create aspirational role models for African American youth and shine light on our great outdoors and the future they deserve.
Funding through the Kickstarter campaign will run for one month, ending May 10. People interested in making tax-deductible contributions to the production of the film can do so here.
Pledging to the Kickstarter campaign is incentivized by prizes that directly relate to the expedition and the film. Prizes include 30-day, fully transferable Wind River NOLS courses; downloads of the film; climbing equipment used by the athletes on the mountain; summit flags and Skype sessions with the team.
National Park Service Sets Its Sights On A Big GOAL
Since its establishment in 1916, the National Park System has grown to include more than 84 million acres tended to by 22,000 permanent, temporary, and seasonal National Park Service (NPS) employees each year.
Recognizing a need to improve management practices within the NPS, the Generating Organizational Advancement and Leadership (GOAL) Academy was first implemented in 2008 for Grand Canyon National Park employees. As of 2013, the mid-level leadership development program covers all regions in the contiguous 48 states and has enrolled three 20-person cohorts.
The GOAL Academy hopes to cultivate a comprehensive leadership management strategy to prepare the next generation of NPS leaders. The Academy also seeks to enhance NPS leadership in an effort to become one of the top places to work in the federal government.
Designed as a 10-month program, the GOAL Academy comprises five four-day training sessions, leadership coaching, and an extensive actionable group project. Each session focuses on different competencies including self-awareness, resilience, building effective teams, conflict management, leading change, executive leadership, and leveraging resources. The group project then challenges participants to put their newly gained leadership skills into practice.
To capitalize on external expertise, the GOAL Academy partners with various service providers including NOLS. Academy participants partake in a NOLS Leadership Navigation Challenge (LNC) on the final day of the first session. The LNC is a great opportunity for individuals with time constraints to take advantage of the NOLS leadership curriculum.
During the LNC, each 20-member cohort is divided into teams of five to seven and presented with a challenge designed to test the team’s ability to navigate the tension between the desire for the small group to succeed and additionally assisting in the large group’s success.
Prior to the NOLS’ element of the training, Academy goers complete the Myers-Briggs Inventory and focus on understanding the significance of group decision-making, leadership, and communication. Then, the LNC solidifies learning from the previous days and sets the foundation for building relationships as teams begin work on their group projects.
To date, the program has been very successful—it has expanded each year and 20 of the 58 current graduates have earned promotions. At the end of the ongoing cohorts, 98 National Park Service employees will be GOAL Academy graduates.
Risk Management Training: Kick Your RM Practices into Tip-Top Shape
After years spent churning around the corporate buzzword blender, the phrase “risk management” has too often become associated with lengthy legal documents filled with useless jargon and stale policies. For the thousands of organizations in the outdoor recreation industry, this perceived norm is not acceptable. Neither lingo nor blanketed universal procedures are suitable when peoples’ well-being and, in many cases, lives are on the line.
Recognizing a need to strengthen risk management practices throughout the outdoor community, NOLS created its first Risk Management Training (RMT) in 2005, which has since grown to 10 trainings annually across the United States. The two-day seminar is designed to provide a structured approach and tools to build risk management plans appropriate for individual organizations.
RMT instructor, Nate Ostis believes participants benefit from the training because it enables them “to look down on their program from 1,000 feet and see how every component plays a significant role in generating a healthy culture of risk management.”
Eleven years after first becoming a NOLS instructor, Ostis continues to teach field courses, Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) courses, and Professional Training courses including RMTs, the most recent of which took place in Seattle, March 5-6. Following the training, Ostis shared his belief that, “the best way to travel and work in the outdoors is to prepare proactively rather than reactively.”
In addition to working for NOLS, Ostis also owns and operates his own swift water rescue training company. He reflected, “I had to start at ground zero establishing our own risk management practices. I can relate to RMT participants that find the task of writing a risk management plan to be somewhat overwhelming and enjoy sharing my experience taking small steps toward big gains.”
Ostis emphasized that, “risk management isn’t a checklist; it's a culture—a journey along an endless track.” He went on to explain, “It's one thing to require first aid certification. It's another to run a monthly first aid scenario to keep skills sharp. It's the little details that separate amateurs from professionals, and it's the little details that allow risk management to become a culture versus simply a checklist.”
Sarah McKerlich, Director of Risk Management for grades 6-12 at Glenlyon Norfolk School, participated in the Seattle RMT earlier this month. GNS, a co-ed independent day school in British Columbia, offers a variety of outdoor and service learning opportunities to its student body.
In her position, McKerlich supports daily field trips to natural and urban environments, the extensive outdoor education program, as well as local and global service projects and international student travel. McKerlich said of her role: “I like to think of myself as ‘Director of all things fun.’ My goal is to create structurally safe programs and to establish steps to maintain that safety in order to ensure learning and enjoyment for all.”
McKerlich looked to the RMT to “gain insight into how to further develop the school’s risk management practices and to build a framework allowing [her] to audit the programs in the future.” Following the training, she said her “goals were absolutely met. The pragmatic approach to the scenarios, templates, and action plan gave me tangible, useful takeaways to apply directly to my work at GNS.”
Ostis reiterated the importance the RMT places on individualization: “We don't train you to do it our way, we train you to do it the best way you can based on your values, your mission, and your goals for providing amazing experiences for your participants.”
City Girl Loves Life in the Wilderness
Accustomed to California sunshine and city living, 16-year-old Ale Sternberg was launched into a world unknown last fall as she spent a week backpacking through the North Cascade Mountains in Washington state.
As juniors at The Archer School for Girls, a private all-girls grades 6-12 school in Los Angeles, Sternberg and her classmates traveled to the Pacific Northwest to participate in the NOLS/Archer Arrow Week Expedition.
The Arrow Week Expedition program, designed with an educational progression for seventh-, ninth-, and eleventh-grade girls, stands as a unique experiential learning opportunity, fostering the development of backcountry skills, leadership, and deeper peer relationships. Over the three-course progression, the girls’ knowledge, experience, and abilities grow, as do their personal and team responsibilities for the technical and interpersonal aspects of the course.
Reflecting on her NOLS experience, Sternberg recalled, “I was anxious before the Archer Arrow Week. I had some idea what to expect, but I was still really nervous to be out in the woods.”
Despite her nerves, Sternberg embraced the course and “loved [the expedition] because I learned so much about myself and my classmates. After the trip I also realized how much I understood about being a leader and team member.”
She also developed a stronger appreciation for the beauty of the outdoors and found it “relaxing not to worry about responding to emails or texts for a week.”
In addition to the technical and leadership skills gained, Sternberg reminisced about the fantastic “bonding experience with my classmates. Every night we would all crowd into one tent and tell stories.”
As she grew closer to her classmates, she also created fond memories of her instructors. “I had two of the best instructors in the world. It blew my mind how much they learned about me in just six days,” she said.
Sternberg, a high school junior, challenges herself to live in the present, despite the constant pull to think about her future. Consequently, she was grateful that the course allowed her to “just be present in any given hike or activity.”
Inspired by her Arrow Week Expedition, Sternberg decided to take another NOLS course and is excited to participate in a 30-day backpacking expedition through the Wind River Mountains this summer. She looks forward to “bonding with complete strangers, seeing a new place, sharing [her] knowledge, and improving skills that can only be achieved through practice.”
Cornell Cultivates Leadership, Elementally
As both a NOLS instructor and an MBA student at Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Jamie Hunt acts as a one-of-a-kind bridge between individuals typically sporting an array of Patagonia apparel and those who don blazers and button-ups on a more regular basis. Hunt’s distinctive perspective helped forge the pathway for the first Johnson Leadership Expedition, a 10-day hiking course in Patagonia for academic credit that took place in January.
Hunt pointed out that, “leadership is the new business school ‘buzz word.’ Yet, few business schools provide MBAs with the opportunity to lead in situations with real consequences.”
From his own experience, Hunt knows “A NOLS expedition provides a unique opportunity to fail, to give and receive face-to-face feedback, and to reflect.” He went on to explain, “In the mountains, there are few distractions—no partner to call, no iPhone to pull out, no game to watch—one learns to accept reality as it is, instead of how he or she would like it to be.”
During the first three days of the course, students faced unexpected challenges presented by suboptimal weather conditions: 30-45 degrees with steady precipitation culminating in the traverse of a snowy pass in similar circumstances. Fierce wind repeatedly knocked participants to the ground. Though trying and unpleasant, Hunt acknowledged that the bad weather brought the team together and helped them recognize that they had a greater tolerance for adversity than expected.
In addition to time spent in the field, participants also partook in pre- and post-expedition sessions designed to support the experiential learning process and enhance the analytical rigor of the leadership material. The classes were designed and led by Johnson Associate Professor of Management and Organizations James Detert. Pre-expedition sessions centered around active followership, peer leadership, decision-making styles, and how to effectively cope with stress in leadership situations. After the expedition, a collective debrief was followed by individualized coaching. Students gave and received honest feedback about observed leadership and followership capabilities while the coaching focused on developing plans for transferring learning from the trek to their everyday lives and professional careers.
The Johnson School's Director of Leadership Programs, Jerry Rizzo, who was also a member of the expedition, highlighted one of the business school’s main objectives: “to teach an ongoing cycle of instruction, experience, and review.”
He explained, “It is hard to find ways to provide meaningful experiences that reinforce classroom learning.” However, he observed “NOLS takes students to an environment away from day-to-day interruptions and allows them to fully focus on their personal leadership style as well as areas of strength and areas for improvement.”
Student Alex Chang reiterated Rizzo’s assertion: “The backcountry life removed all the front-country distractions, and my leadership style and personality came through to me a lot more clearly than if I was in a leadership training retreat in the front-country."
Columbia Business School Students Tackle Patagonia
Last December, 11 Columbia Business School (CBS) students completed the first 10-day CBS Leadership Expedition to Patagonia. Maya Mandel, CBS class of 2013 and president of the Outdoor Adventures Club was responsible for bringing the course to fruition. Initially introduced to NOLS through a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article, Maya was interested in what NOLS could offer her and her peers. After discussing several different options, it was determined that an expedition to Patagonia would best suit the CBS students.
Mandel, a second year student from Israel, noted that her decision to attend CBS was not fueled by a desire to change careers. Rather, she said, “I was eager to push myself outside my comfort zone. I wanted to create meaningful relationships with new colleagues… and I hoped to be inspired to do things that I never would have done otherwise.” The inaugural CBS Leadership Expedition to Patagonia helped her do just that. In fact, she stated, the course “was the pinnacle of my CBS experience thus far.”
The expedition consisted of 10 days spent in the remote Northern Patagonia Mountains. Mandel reminisced, “We carried 60-pound backpacks, crossed rivers, climbed mountain passes, drank maté, devoured the dulce de leche treat, handled fatigue and injuries, enjoyed two to three sunny mornings, and survived the last day of the world, (at least according to the Mayan Calendar), and witnessed first-hand how in such a short time period we learn new skills, adapt, grow, and lead.”
Mandel spoke highly of their three instructors and explained, “[They] introduced leadership principals, decision-making styles, and encouraged us to conduct an open and honest feedback session at the end of every day. We learned about self-leadership, designated leadership, and most importantly how to be an effective active follower. We lived by the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and practiced good expedition behavior (EB) day in and day out.”
Regarding the many lessons gained from such a unique expedition experience, Mandel reflected, “We had the opportunity to focus on the simple things in life, to receive (and give) sincere feedback from teammates, to face and overcome obstacles never faced before, to practice all kinds of leadership, to laugh, to explore, to reflect, to challenge, to conquer, to support.” She closed by saying, “The inaugural CBS Leadership Expedition to Patagonia was everything I was hoping my MBA experience would be.”
Camp Dudley Takes It West
When Camp Dudley, a residential summer camp based out of Westport, New York, decided to expand its focus on wilderness-based leadership development, Outdoor Program Director Scott Steen knew exactly who he wanted to call. Originally introduced to NOLS through instructor friends, Steen believes “NOLS is a premier leadership development organization.”
Camp Dudley’s dedication to “develop moral, personal, physical, and leadership skills in the spirit of fellowship and fun” led to the creation of this new course in 2012, allowing Dudley’s young leaders-in-training to live out the mission in a unique outdoor setting. Although the specific activities that take place at camp may vary significantly from what happens on a NOLS course, Steen contends that the alignment of mission and values between the two organizations make them a great fit for one another.
The inaugural NOLS Camp Dudley and Kiniya (Dudley’s sister camp) Leadership Expedition was a 21-day course consisting of a 14-day backpacking section and a week of rock-climbing in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. Campers learned to travel confidently across mountainous terrain using 3rd and 4th class terrain management, travel planning, and route selection skills. Opportunities to fly-fish, identify diverse flora and fauna, and see spectacular views arose throughout the trip. During the rock-climbing portion, top-rope belay techniques, rappelling, and basic safety techniques were covered.
In addition to the technical skills gained, Steen noted that campers received great benefit from improved “leadership skills that can be applied beyond the camp or course context to life in college and everything thereafter.” Camp Dudley’s motto is simple: “The other fellow first.” This is a motto Steen considers well taught in the outdoor classroom: “In a remote wilderness setting, individuals in a group can learn how to live well with each other, to count on one another, and to consider the needs of the group.” As a result of the expedition, campers also experienced real “self-discovery and a deep appreciation for the natural world.”
Camp Dudley staff member Dylan Pollock served as a facilitator on the expedition; he ensured that the course stayed true to Dudley’s roots while fully embracing the NOLS curriculum. For Pollock, the laid back, fun atmosphere coupled with a determination to travel efficiently and work together as a team set the trip apart. As the expedition progressed, Pollock was struck by the campers’ growing “awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and ability to make improvements. It was incredible to see over the course of 20 days.”
Pollock reflected on one camper who “was not the outdoors type person” but who “became the go-to for an opinion on map reading. People felt confident getting his opinion.” Furthermore, Pollock recalls a defining moment when, after the course, those who participated spoke to an audience fluidly and openly about their experience. He noted that their demeanor and comportment revealed to all that they had developed as leaders.
Veterans return from wilderness with NOLS and the Sierra Club
In early May, seven veterans and one Army wife embarked on a six-day leadership expedition in the Gila Wilderness. Organized by the Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors and run by NOLS Professional Training, the course was open to—and free for—veterans. The goal of the course was to give veterans an opportunity to become outdoor leaders.
Although it is easy to assume that the culture of NOLS and that of the military are incongruent, the very core of what NOLS offers—wilderness expeditions—is exactly why the two are a perfect match. As one participant noted, returning to the unregimented world of civilian life can be an incredible challenge for veterans.
“I think all veterans suffer to some extent as they leave military service in finding their way in the next chapter of life. I felt a bit like Morgan Freeman’s character Red in the movie Shawshank Redeption. ‘I’m an institutional man, and not sure I can make it on the outside,’” explained USNR Trevor Ivory in a recent post on the Sierra Club blog. “Even though I was outside my comfort zone from day [one], the interactions with staff and other veterans built a confidence and sense of self and team accomplishment that I hadn’t experienced since my time on active duty.”
This kind of reaction echoes the experience Stacy Bare, the Sierra Club’s national military families and veterans representative, has had with outdoor recreation and summarizes why he helped create the program.
“[On the course], I reminded myself that veterans and service members love to serve, love to challenge themselves, love to push themselves farther, and to be part of a team,” commented Bare. “I reminded myself that wilderness—the outdoors—[is] a necessary part of the human experience and that cutting ourselves off from that inhibits are ability to thrive in modern times.”
Perhaps nothing could better synthesize the purpose of the course than the slogan for the National Park Service: “Experience your America.” Through its partnership with the Sierra Club, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Operation Free, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, NOLS now enables those who fought for America to enjoy America and to develop skills for leading others in the wilderness.
Read more reflections from the course on the Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative blog.