NOLS: National Outdoor Leadership School Home


Summer 2006 Issue
    Cover Article
    Message from the Editors
    NOLS Expedition Behavior: From Conception to Mantra
    Wild Side of Medicine: Blisters
    Advocates or Educators--and What's the Difference?
    A Noble Cause
    Q&A with John Gans, NOLS Executive Director
    Backcountry Safety Tips
    Mexico's Big Drops: A NOLS Tradition
    Uncommon Trails
    Recipe Box: App-Saroka Crisp
    This Job's a Trip
    Day 82 of 77: Lessons Learned from a NOLS Course
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Q&A with John Gans, NOLS Executive Director
By Julie Hwang

Q) John, you’ve been involved with NOLS for over 25 years now. Tell me a little bit about yourNOLS course, and how you started teaching students in the field.

A) I was a semester student in Kenya in 1979, my last semester in college, and it changed my views on education and the world. Once I graduated, I was looking for an experiential education institution that focused on young people, with strong ties to the outdoors; I found all of those things at NOLS. In fact, I found it to be the perfect educational environment.

I came back and did my IC (Instructor Course) in ‘80 and started working for the school in ‘81. I remember coming out of the mountains on my first course; other instructors were ready to be done, thinking about beer and pizza and ice cream, and I just didn’t want to leave.

Q) How has the NOLS changed since then?

A) In terms of outcomes and goals, little has changed. What haschanged are aspects of our implementation that only enhance the ways that we achieve our mission. Our equipment has gotten a lot better, for example, and there is alotmore logistical organization. Also, alumni are way more tied into the school now. They are engaged in spreading the word and contribute to the Annual Fund and campaigns to meet needs of future students.

We have also diversified our education program. By acquiring WMI and starting NOLS Professional Training, we’ve improved and expanded the reach of what we do educationally around the world.

Q) You’ve been the Executive Director of a large, international non-profit for over a decade. What keeps you going?

A) I have dedicated my life to education, leadership, youth, wilderness and non-profits, either at NOLS or elsewhere. These are the things that I really value and want to stay close to, and I’ll always want to do it in the organization that does it best. The challenge to keep on improving is enough to keep me going and then some.

As far as specific examples of the great moments, I’ll give you two: The first is something I call “the bus factor,” when you walk onto a NOLS bus at the end of a course. The energy there is always unbelievable. There’s also the smell… Second, I love meeting with alumni, hearing the difference that NOLS has made in their lives.

Q) We’re in the final stages of the school’s largest and most ambitious capital campaign—the International Base Camp Initiative—how do bricks and mortar provide a framework for living, learning and teaching at NOLS?

A) Fifteen years ago, NOLS had great ideas and great staff, but it owned nearly none of its facilities. In order to last, we needed: 1. an endowment to provide predictable support for scholarships and other initiatives, 2. a diversified student base that matched the changing demographics of our country and world, and 3. stability of running more of our facilities. We started by acquiring many of our branch headquarters and then turned to address needs in Lander. The Noble was run down, and we were renting space in various locations in town for our office needs. This Base Camp Initiative brought together our headquarters staff in one building and addressed the Noble renovation. It has been one of the key steps in building the future of the school, so we can continue to do the best job we can without worrying about our home.

Q) A big piece of your job is working with the Board of Trustees. Most readers don’t really know the NOLS Board. How would you describe that group, their role and their function?

A) Our Board is phenomenal. They donate their time, energy and support and have great EB as a group. Most are NOLS grads, NOLS parents or former staff, so they’re not afraid to lead and act situationally. In fact, they are all are exemplary leaders outside of NOLS. They know why they’re serving and are able to put issues on the table and move us forward.

Q) There are growing and complicated political and environmental threats to wild lands; should NOLS become more active in the conservation and advocacy arenas?

A) Our primary role is as an educational organization. Our goal is for students to understand the conflicts and the various sides of land management issues and develop their own wilderness ethic to become stewards for the land. We are most effective by speaking from our expertise and knowledge of the lands in which we operate; in many cases, lands that we know better than anyone else. Consequently, we have the responsibility to step up and advocate for the school’s classrooms.

Q) You've seen NOLS go through countless changes as a student, instructor and administrator. What can we expect or project NOLS to look like in another 10 years?

A) In 10 years, NOLS students will continue to hike in wind pants and eat pasta in wilderness areas around the world. Our reputation will broaden—not only in numbers, but also in geography and with a more diverse group of students and staff. 

I see more programs in place that will ensure the quality and development of our staff. Among them will be endowed faculty chairs that will focus on specific portions of our curriculum. We will also have endowed positions to support instructor proctor positions on semester courses around the school. I also see further growth of our training funds for staff. Significant expansion areas will include academic year-long programs, further growth in WMI and significant growth in NOLS Professional Training.

NOLS students will be challenged, get dirty, have fun, experience life in a whole new way and head out to be leaders in the world. This group of leaders will make a difference for wilderness and for our world.

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