Books for Backpacks: College students Head into the Woods for a
By Emy Noel
Semester in the Rockies, 2001
Kirsten Johnson didn't know what to write home about. It had been
almost two months since she'd left Smith College in Massachusetts
for her Semester in the Rockies with the National Outdoor Leadership
School (NOLS). Since then, she'd jammed her hands into small holds
while rock climbing on tall granite towers, heaved her pack over
high mountain passes in Wyoming's remote wilderness, and saddled
up a horse for a pack trip in a desert that glowed red when the
"I wrote home trying to explain what I'd been doing everyday—so
this is where we camped, and this is what we've been eating, this
is how we read a map," Johnson says. "I can describe
all of those things. What I struggled with was how to tell my
parents what it meant to be able to do all of this. There are
hardly words to describe what it's like to wake up everyday and
think, 'something crazy cool is going to happen today.' "
The options are endless when today's college students decide to
spend a semester away from the traditional college classroom.
They can go anywhere in the world, from Belize to Belgium, and
study just about any topic, from social issues in Australia, to
sea turtles in Costa Rica.
Many college students are finding that a semester away from
the Ivy Towers is the perfect opportunity to leave it all behind
and discover what it really means to be 'out there.' The Lander,
Wyo.-based National Outdoor Leadership School, founded in 1965,
was the first to offer an entire semester in the out-of-doors,
learning wilderness, leadership and technical skills. The school
currently offers semesters in the Rocky Mountains, Teton Valley,
Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Alaska, the Yukon Territory, Mexico,
Australia, Patagonia and New Zealand. Each semester covers a range
of skills, from backpacking, rock climbing and coastal sailing
to whitewater kayaking and mountaineering.
Dave Glenn, director of NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander, says
semester students don't always know what to expect when they first
arrive. But he says by the end of their semester, what the students
remember most is the remoteness, their fellow coursemates, and
the instructors who taught them so much.
By this point, Glenn says, the students are capable and cohesive—the
dynamic entirely changed. “In 90 days, students learn to
deal with diversity and things they can’t learn anywhere
else,” says Glenn. “I look at what they learn on a
semester and I think, ‘It took me 15 years to learn this.'
It’s a phenomenal experience, everything from leadership
to the technical experience and skills.”
NOLS semesters consist of three or four sections over 64 to
94 days, depending on which country or time of year a student
chooses to explore. A Semester
in the Rockies descends into the canyonlands of southern Utah,
in Baja journeys onto the boundless waters of the Gulf of
California, a Semester
in New Zealand winds amongst the mystical peaks of the South
Island. And this in just one section, with more to follow. “A
month-long NOLS course is just a taste of what you can do,”
As with shorter NOLS courses, Glenn says a NOLS semester focuses
on outdoor skills, leadership, and thriving in the wilderness,
but a semester offers additional advantages, like 16 to 19 hours
of college credit, more skill areas, more time to master these
skills, stronger bonds between coursemates, and more opportunities
to lead. Glenn says this leadership makes semesters ideal for
students who hope to get into outdoor education and sharpen life
skills. “You come to an understanding of yourself and people
as leaders," says Glenn.
Johnson, who took a spring Semester
in the Rockies in 2002, is quick to point out the challenges
of the semester-long NOLS experience. "You need to lead and
work with people who have seen you in vulnerable situations,”
says Johnson. “A semester is a long time, there are ups
and downs, and no opportunities to hide who you are. It’s
a tremendous growth opportunity.”
Johnson says it takes time to learn a skill and inclination
to live in the outdoors and lead yourself and your peers, and
that’s just what NOLS semester students have, she says,
three months and the motivation to take on an intense challenge.
“My semester allowed me the space to be reflective and
reflect on others,” says Johnson. “You see a more
complete picture of people when they have accomplished something,
when they’ve failed, when they’re soaking wet, when
they’re perfectly at ease. It’s not guarded. That
definitely has to do with the amount of time.”
Arron Simon, a 2002 spring Semester
in Patagonia graduate, says one of the most valuable things
he learned was valuable leadership experience. “The leadership
progression was a core part of my semester," says Simon.
"After your first leadership day, you get feedback and you
have a chance to work on that, always building on the previous
time. You really get it down and you can see the difference.”
Many NOLS grads say that more than anything else it was the
amount of time they were out there that had the biggest impact.
“The time is one thing to be proud of,” says Simon.
“I came out of my semester more confident. It’s a
huge feeling of accomplishment to have done it, done it well,
and enjoyed all of it."
Glenn, who sees semester grads come and go all year, says there's
a "new grad vs. old grad" perspective. Immediately following
a semester, he says, students sense that they’re not the
same. They can recount their favorite day or the most challenging
rapid on their river section. Later, they can pinpoint when it
was they started changing, who it was that most influenced them,
and how their outlook has expanded.
You can see a place in one day, know it after one week, and
experience it after one month. But after a semester, says Glenn,
you understand what it takes to live there. You also understand
more about yourself, and what it will take to live the rest of