During my 2020 Fall “Covid-mester,” I knew that I wanted to transfer to a different school. I enjoyed my time at Southern Methodist University during my freshman year. But after forced bedroom isolation reflection during lockdown, I realized that living in Texas wasn’t for me. I didn’t have this transfer planned out at all. This caused me to apply to a handful of schools at the last minute. By December, I found out I didn’t get accepted into any of the schools I applied to. Being already unregistered from SMU and needing something to do in my spring semester, I decided to sign up for the gap semester program NOLS (National Outdoors Leadership School). I didn’t know much about it, but I heard of family friends partaking before. Little did I know how much this semester would uproot all that I knew before.
This last-minute gap program turned into a life changing adventure for me
The three weeks between signing up for the program and leaving for it blurred. So much needed to be done that I didn’t really allow myself to process the extent of this program and the change it would bring. I needed to pack and complete a towering amount of college applications waiting for me. It didn’t hit me that I actually would do this program on my flight to Wyoming nor did it hit me on the drive to the NOLS headquarters. It hit me about a week into it when I said to myself, “S#!$”, I’m really out in the cold winter wilderness.”
A Cold, Cold Challenge
As someone with backpacking experience, I still knew the program would challenge me at times. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the extent of these hardships though. The first week and a half of the program, we took classes to get our Wilderness First Respondent Certification. We mostly stayed in a classroom all day. By the end of the WFR classes, I yearned for some adventures. Lucky for me, our next session included Winter Camping.
To get a visualization of winter camping, the temperatures ended up staying sub-zero for some nights with crazy wind speeds. I remember the first day of Winter-Camping because I learned the true meaning of fatigue. Cross country skiing up the steep mountain caused me to feel physically and mentally drained. “This program will definitely be a challenge,” I thought to myself.
This first night turned into one of my many sleepless nights while Winter Camping.
Throughout the experience, I learned how to survive, I became stronger than ever. This was due to constantly moving around, layering up for thirty minutes daily and trying to remember the 1000 steps to not get frostbite. While difficult, these steps were essential for survival and for growth. Everything felt more real to me. All the issues I faced in my daily life back home in sunny and warm Atlanta seemed so small at that moment. That’s when I realized how thankful I was for these “all or nothing” challenges, as it pushed me to be someone who can handle these situations.
I remember the last day of Winter Camping vividly. We took a bus back to the NOLS HQ. We showered, changed and had phone access for a day. I’ve never such a rewarding feeling before. For 12 days, I survived on a mountain in Wyoming in one of the coldest months of the year. I still haven’t fully comprehended the weight of my accomplishment two years later.
Keep on Climbing
While I would call Winter Camping the most difficult session for me, the next session had its own challenges. We went on a month-long backpacking trip in Utah to focus less on survival skills and more on learning leadership skills. We started our hiking days at four to six miles with NOLS guides and ended up by ourselves later in the trip with 16-19 mile long days. We rotated a daily leader every hiking day. These days allowed us to map out our own hikes, teaching us to balance our own needs with that of the four to five hikers in our group. I lacked confidence my first time being a daily leader. I personally believed that a good leader consisted of someone who gets their group there the fastest and exudes confidence. By the end of my leading day, I realized this approach wouldn’t work.
I decided to take group input and prioritize group needs as much as mine my second time leading a group. I comfortability trumped my speed for the group as I learned getting there fast wasn’t the best thing I could do for everyone else. My decisions as a leader were just as important as the decisions made by the group. To thrive as a leader you need to find a way to balance your own goals as a leader with the specific group needs. I still take these leadership traits to heart to this day.
Moving as a Unit
A NOLS trip consists of the same 10-15 people for your program’s duration. Throughout the 90 days, you have no contact with anyone other than some leaders and the people in your group. I completed other outdoor programs before with a similar amount of people. However, they never exceeded three weeks. I didn’t know how close you could get with people being together for three months
We saw each side of each other throughout that time. We saw everyone’s positive moments and negative moments. We learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I even learned “how to be vulnerable”. I never considered myself a lone wolf by any means, but I would definitely say that I experienced issues opening up to my friends, exes and even family members. I still faced this challenge going into my gap semester. By the first few days we were acquaintances and through the next few weeks we became friends. With time, these relationships became powerful. We all became each other’s confidants by the end. I became comfortable with being vulnerable.
When you experience some of the most physically and emotionally challenging weeks of your life with others, you create an indescribable bond.
By the end of the trip, I let my guard down around everyone. I opened up to my friends about my insecurities and weaknesses. I shared my prideful moments and my true-self. As a 22 year old, I still don’t know who I am entirely. I don’t think anyone does at this age. But this trip taught me that I am my best self when I’m around people I can trust. Having transferred to NYU two years later, I still consider NOLS one of the most transformative experiences in my life. The person I am today would not exist if it wasn’t for the leadership and community exposure I got from the program.