In writing this review I am attempting to elaborate on countless nights of reflection, ranting, questioning, and a handful of nights after even all that sitting somewhere quiet in a puffy with a hot drink. During the Fall semester of 2011 I found myself each morning upon opening my eyes in the best places America has to offer. I found myself as a student in the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Rocky Mountain Outdoor Educator Semester. The course began September 16th and ended December 13th, a total of 94 days including logistic and administrative days. Without a doubt this course was an unforgettable experience that I will cherish for the rest of my days. That being said, the course wasn’t as great as it could’ve been, or at least, there are concerns that come embedded in the course structure that a prospective student should be aware of.
Like mentioned above the outdoor educator semester - fall (OESF) started on September 16th, 2011 in Lander, Wyoming. Students were given a briefing the day before, however, from NOLS Headquarters staff. We received briefs on NOLS programming, human resources/staffing, and diversity from various personnel. Students were largely divided at this point between OESF-1 and OESF-2 (I belonged to OESF-2), both groups fifteen students approximate total. On the official start date students packed and departed for the Wind River Range, some forty-five minutes away. There, we spent ten days with three instructors as a 15-person student group. Leadership teams started day three and carried on throughout in various forms for the duration of the course.
From our pick-up September 26th, we headed to meet up with OESF-1 at the Three Peaks Ranch in Boulder, WY. Ten days of Wilderness First Responder training put us in a classroom nearly all day each day. Our group picked up and left the morning of day 11 at the Ranch and moved back to Lander, WY. to pack for climbing, canyons, and winter section. OESF-1 was to go to Red Rocks outside of Las Vegas, NV for their 17-day climbing experience and OESF-2 to Unaweep Canyon, CO. Climbing camp finished in the final days of October where both groups then met again in Green River, UT. Canyoneering lasted 28 days and led us to the brink of December.
Once Canyons ended, OESF-1 & 2 spent two days moving north to the Teton Valley Branch(TVB) in Driggs, ID (A place I will always long to be back to). Upon arrival we slept in bunks, we used internet, we drank coffee and cider, and we wore town clothes. Four days were lined up to stay at the TVB. The first two being ski lessons at Targhee ski resort and the second being formal class time at the TVB towards our Recreational Avalanche Awareness Level One certification. Then, ten final days spent backcountry telemark skiing in the Wyoming Range. That was it, we went back to living in rooms with walls and electricity. Things became complicated, they became unfortunate and sedentary.
Over three months two groups of people went to five different places with different instructors each time, forming and re-forming often as different groups. My concern here is the wreckage that can occur with the schedules of group mish-mashing throughout the course. The mish-mash occurs understandably. For example the re-integration of the full OESF student body for Wilderness First Responder. Or, the challenges posed by group-maximum numbers for the Bureau of Land Management permits needed to access the Canyons. I’m sure some of this is necessary, and I’m sure some of it could be changed. Offering solutions, though, is not my intent. I’m writing to make prospective students aware of the issue, it is not good or bad.
To flesh my experience out a bit more, take this: My original group of fifteen students entered ten days of backpacking together and experienced a honeymoon stage, one of politeness, attachment, loyalty, and a turn-of-the-head attitude towards interpersonal problems. We then re-integrated with OESF-1 for ten days in a classroom setting, and plenty of students held apprehension towards ‘The Other”, making uncomfortable gossip an everyday occurrence. By the end of ten days folks were working together peaceably, only to then be brought back to their original fifteen student groups in another different setting. Climbing camp, where students reside at one location and walk or drive to the climbing sites each day lasts a while. Students are divided into tent groups and spread out far and wide to minimize the environmental impact of their presence. Note, though, that now one student group is split into fragments and while negative sentiments don’t seem to give rise among one tent group or another, they are still alienated. This, combined with the very personal goals of climbing camp for each student, don’t lend themselves to community building. Another seventeen days, and a group hasn’t existed as a community since Backpacking in the Wind River Range. Please note that my above writing on the climbing section is particular to OESF-2’s experience as we camped in a remote area, whereas I believe OESF-1 stayed at a public campground where they were confined together.
Groups met again briefly at Green River, Utah and prepared to split again into Canyons groups. Canyons groups were listed as A, B, and C and contained approximate totals of 8 students. These groups, where students spent a month together, were the closest to bond. This was the NOLS experience we’d looked for, moving farthest along Tuckman’s stages of group formation. I feel experiencing, to the greatest extent possible, the problems and fortunes of group formation as a student is essential to growing as a leader - being aware of the fluctuations and tuning your activities and lessons to foster development towards performance.
Groups re-formed as one while at the TVB and then split again into the original two sections for telemark skiing. I noticed though, that through all four days, canyon groups ate together at the TVB and infrequently did it deviate largely from that. So, team building emphasized in program-timeline and through additional initiatives and activities could be improved.
To move on,two of my course peers, a former high school chemistry teacher and a literature professor, were much more adept than I at stating their concern with pedagogical approaches utilized as standard by NOLS. Specifically, in teaching lessons that were non-technical and non-leadership oriented. Now, at first glance one may not be concerned that the National Outdoor Leadership School doesn’t do lessons other than Leadership too expertly, but when I’m receiving college credit in such topics as Desert Ecology, Biology, and Environmental Science, I expect a bit more.
With all this being said, I still affirm the statements made in the introductory paragraph - that NOLS was an experience I wish every individual could have and a necessary one if we are to foster stewardship for the environment as a value in our youth. NOLS and Outward Bound, another wilderness education organization, should be a standard of education not because of their academics or lessons, but due to their ability to teach the humanity and introspection of living in a world passing by every moment.