At Outward Bound we get to hear from both students and Instructors across the country about their experiences on course. However, it’s rare to gain two different perspectives from the same expedition. We recently had the opportunity to interview a student and Instructor from the 75-day Ithaca College Immersion Semester in the Pacific Northwest. To hear from both sides of the spectrum was a great way to gain insight on what it was like learning and teaching in the outdoor classroom that is Outward Bound.
With a major in Economics and a minor in Outdoor Pursuits, Rob Lister was required to obtain some form of hands-on experience. An internship with any type of outdoor program would have sufficed, but Rob already had Outward Bound in mind. In the classroom they often spoke about outdoor skills, but rarely were given a chance to practice them in an outdoor classroom setting. So he signed up for a 75-day long Outward Bound course through his school, Ithaca College; something that only a few other students have had the chance to complete before him. For 75 days Rob and seven others would do more than satisfy a few credits towards their undergraduate degrees.
When I met with Rob, he held himself well, but casually. His long hair curled and waved, bunching out from his baseball cap. His youth showed but was deceptive in letting you pinpoint his exact age; a twenty-something. He had the expression that he was smiling even if he wasn’t, which was apparent in his eyes. Rob was obviously content with life as I asked him to tell me about himself and his 75-day experience with Outward Bound.
OB: Tell me about your background.
Rob: I grew up in Sommerset, NJ in the same place for elementary, middle and high school; all of my schooling was in the same building. My graduating class had 80 people. Now I’m an Economics major and Math and Outdoor Pursuits minor at Ithaca College in western New York.
OB: Why choose to throw in the Outdoor Pursuits minor with studies in Economics and Math?
Rob: Well my dad has a PhD in Economics and my mom has a Masters degree in Economics as well as English. I already went into college with credit in economics from classes that provided it in high school.
A lot of people don’t always realize that Economics is the study of choices and why we make them. While participating in Spartan races and trying rock climbing, I started to think about how I could combine decision making with outdoor leadership.
OB: What are Spartan races?
Rob: It’s a long distance obstacle course, mud run race that is Spartan themed; could be a 5k, half marathon or multi-day event. You might have to crawl under barbed wire, climb ropes, lift weights or carry them for awhile, and do a spear-throw. If you can’t do an obstacle then you have to do thirty burpees!
Before I was into Spartan races, I was a huge video game addict. I did some sports like ski racing in grade school, but I loved fantasy games and owned a Playstation, Xbox, Wii and logged a lot of hours on them all. I enjoyed them because they gave me control over this fantasy world. I could wander about a realm and interact with this cool mystical setting.
It gave me an idea for adventure in my real life; I started to think about exploration and how I could have control over my own adventure.
OB: What were some trials and tribulations that you encountered on course?
Rob: This course has really shown me my strengths and weaknesses, along with how to better work with others.
I LEARNED A LOT ABOUT MY PERSONAL PERSEVERANCE AND HOW FAR I CAN PUSH MY MENTAL CAPACITY TO KEEP GOING.
We did a 9-day hike through Joshua Tree National Park and then more backpacking during our mountain section in the Central Cascades of Oregon. Each day we were in the mountains I would wake up, put on cold, wet socks and know I had to do it again the next day. But I did it and I had fun doing it.
OB: How were your Instructors?
Rob: The Instructors became people I trusted quickly. They were fun, super nice and they went out of their way for us. They never pushed us to do anything they knew we couldn’t handle, though they did challenge us in a lot of ways to succeed. Outward Bound supplied the equipment I didn’t own but needed and I was never concerned about my well-being, even on the [hardest] days.
OB: What is your overall takeaway from your Outward Bound course?
Rob: Outward Bound has given me invaluable leadership experience and people skills that I know are going to stick with me. Back at Ithaca, we learned about camp cooking through some YouTube videos, but during Outward Bound, we actually learned how to set up the finicky camp stoves AND cook! Everything I have been taught happens in real life, and I know I am better at those skills because I actually did them! I’ve also made strong friendships to take home with me and gained the confidence to go out on my own personal recreational trips. I’m already planning on buying some gear and venturing around New Hampshire while taking along friends that wouldn’t have the knowledge to go otherwise.
I wish I had done an Outward Bound course in high school. I’m curious how much it would have impacted me then based on how much it has impacted me now.
Rob has since graduated from his Outward Bound semester, along with his seven other course-mates. He will be returning back to New York to finish out his schooling at Ithaca, hopefully landing a future career in Spartan racing along the way.
When Cam Alford began instructing his first season with Outward Bound, he thought he would only stick around for three years. Instead, he now finds himself well into his eighth season. Cam was one of a handful of Instructors selected for the 75-day Ithaca College Immersion Semester. Once logistics were said and done, Cam was on course for 90 days total.
I met Cam the day after the crew had come out of their mountain section. Cam and his students had spent two weeks getting hit with heavy precipitation in the gray scale of snow to rain while backpacking. Despite probably being fairly worn down, he was calm, cheery and still appreciated meeting a new face at the Northwest Outward Bound School’s base camp. I watched Cam work with his students up until their departure day and spoke with him at the very end of the course.
OB: How was the course?
Cam: The students were amazing; motivated to get our objectives done and were great with all of the staff involved. They also really wanted to come together to create a positive group culture. That positivity was important to them and when you have that, then chances are things are going to go well.
OB: What was the goal of this course?
Cam: The goal was to pair these college students’ in-class learnings with actual real life experience; technical-skills like camp craft, backpacking, wilderness first aid and human-skills like communication, leadership, and team work. I worked alongside Pat Lewis, an assistant professor at Ithaca College and former Outward Bound Instructor.
The blend of college level and Outward Bound curriculum was well aligned with Ithaca’s college curriculum. The students had some exposure beforehand which helped the learning process.
It definitely helped me feel validated with what Outward Bound does that the college feels good [about] using our curriculum.
OB: What objective do you have going into a course? What are you trying to get students to take away after everything is said and done?
Cam: I want students to find that there is more in them than is previously known. It’s hard for most people in modern society to be challenged physically, mentally and to work with each other.
It’s important that students can believe in the compassion in people and experience that compassion; Outward Bound provides a platform for those experiences to take place.
In a group, students have to make individual sacrifices in order to successfully live cohesively. You might be hot and tired from a long day on the sun-exposed river or cold and hungry from hiking with a heavy pack all day, but it takes the group to come together at the end of the day and set up camp and cook for everyone.
I hope that they find making those sacrifices worth it, because that worth is transferrable after course ends.
OB: What are your favorite lessons to teach on course?
Cam: I love doing a lesson on assertive communication. We show students different forms of communication, both positive and negative, through a game and let them make up their mind on what the best way to generally communicate is. I especially love asking students to reflect on communication they have had with people outside of the course.
I also really love teaching the Eskimo roll with sea kayaking. Everyone has to learn how to help rescue a flipped kayaker, even I take a turn getting rescued. One person rolls over and is upside down in their kayak. They have to hold their breath and trust that their fellow kayaker is coming to bump their boat so that they may reach up, grab on the bow and roll themselves over. It’s like a trust fall; they’re dependent on someone else.
OB: What is your background?
Cam: I have a teaching certification that I used for 2 years in Madrid, Spain and for over a year in Winthrop, WA teaching in public schools. I also used to work with at-risk youth in Seattle, WA as a lead Instructor. I managed a daytime center for youth that were homeless and came from homes that were under the poverty line. This is where I realized my appreciation for working with young adults in an outdoor setting. It didn’t feel like I was working on those days, and I realized then that I wanted to make [teaching outdoors] my main job.
OB: Why Outward Bound?
Cam: I can say that Outward Bound is the best thing that has ever happened to me; I can stand by that. That’s one of those philosophical statements but that is how it feels.
The longer I’m with Outward Bound, the more I am convinced that our programming is needed.
The work we do is challenging and can be intense. I’m continually challenged, just like many of our students are. The things we do outside are real. This is the most meaningful work I can be doing and I didn’t think that at age 33 I would still be instructing. Even after finishing a 75-day course, I’m already thinking, ‘Alright, what’s next?’
Cam has just finished instructing his longest course with Outward Bound to date, and is looking forward to continuing his season at the Mazama base in the Methow Valley, WA.
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About the Author
Devin Shunk came into the outdoor education field through his experiences and community in Richmond, VA. After learning that one could simply strap a boat on top of a car and live in it, his life’s purpose became living an outdoor lifestyle revolving around seasons. He pocketed his bachelor’s in German Language in December of 2013 and has since ridden a bicycle from South Carolina to California, lived in a non-traditional West Virginian yurt, paddled 104 miles alone through desert canyons and is currently deep into his second season as an assistant Instructor at the Northwest Outward Bound School in central Oregon. Devin owns several kayaks, various bikes, climbing equipment, colorful skis, a seemingly endless jar of peanut butter and a very large backpack and uses them all throughout the year in any place that is within his reach. Check out his Instagram©: @dshunk for more short writings and fun images of his daily life.
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