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The Women’s Initiative at NOLS

Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2002, Vol. 17, No. 3

  John Grunsfeld
  Women NOLS instructors keeping it Real in Alaska.
© Traverse Zink
Women at NOLS in 1966 were few-and-far-between but today account for nearly a third of all instructors. While the growth is measurable, the school would like to see that number increase significantly. In general, women educators are still making their way into the outdoor field and are far outnumbered by their male counterparts. “Wilderness education is such a wonderful field but can be daunting for women,” says NOLS instructor Karen Somerville. “I’ve never felt such a strong support network for women anywhere else but at NOLS, and I’ve guided for a lot of companies.”

The drive to bring more women educators to NOLS is being done, in large part, through a program called the NOLS Women’s Initiative. Since 1997 this initiative has worked to both recruit more women for NOLS instructor courses, particularly those who do well on their student course, and mentor these new instructors as they begin their careers with NOLS.

Somerville has two veteran NOLS instructors as mentors. “If I ever have any questions, I ask them,” she says. “They’re always really supportive, I talk to them after each course and they, having so much experience, can give me a lot of perspective.”

The initiative is currently funded by seven-time NOLS grad David Forster, who also believes that women role models are essential in the wilderness classroom. The idea to fund the program came to him after having inspiring women educators on his NOLS courses and hearing their stories about the challenges women face in the outdoor industry. “If I can help NOLS attract and develop just a few more outstanding women to careers at NOLS,” he says, “then the objectives behind my gift will have been achieved.”

Alison Bergh, a NOLS instructor since 1994, works with women like Somerville as the program’s advisor. “One of the things we learn at NOLS is life skills,” says Bergh. “Educationally the life skills of communication and good expedition behavior and leadership are what most students take away after their course. Part of this education requires providing a positive role model for female students. I love seeing women in the outdoors doing what we do and feeling good about themselves.”


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