I recently took a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Outdoor Education, Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. It was a 31 day course in which we were to learn outdoor skills, leadership & teamwork, environmental ethics and risk management among other things. On the last day of the course the branch manager asked us to rank our experience from a 1 to 10. I am sad to say, I gave it a 5. The course could have been amazing, and could have blown my mind. Alas, my course instructors were unable to fulfill and facilitate that learning for me. And I’m still a little bitter about it, one month later. After this time away from the experience, reflecting, I realized I learned a little about myself, but nowhere near what other experiences since have taught me. Maybe NOLS was a facilitator in this change, but it was going to happen without it regardless.
As far as the course went, we spent 20 days in the Cascade Mountains, and 10 days climbing at Smith Rock. I had never spent time in the cascades and mountaineering was new to me. Before the course I was excited to have this new skill set, and have new experiences. As soon as I got to base however, my excitement dwindled. I was under the impression that this was an ‘outdoor educator’ course, and that my course mates would be knowledgeable about the outdoors and outdoor lifestyle. My expectations were wrong, or at least off. It wasn’t that other students didn’t have a passion for the outdoors, most of them did. But their experience and interest in taking the OE course in particular seemed to stem from ‘it fit my schedule’ to ‘AmeriCorps paid for it, and I had to do something’. The drive to become an outdoor educator, at least the way I perceive the title was lacking in 70% of the students. This defiantly made the trip interesting with outdoor skill set ranging from those who had only gone backpacking once to those studying outdoor education.
I don’t want to say I hated NOLS. That’s far from the truth. I just felt like that one ‘kid’ in the group that nobody understood. I was wedged between the role of eager student, and reluctant teacher. Reluctant, because I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I had a very hard time asking my instructors to teach me what I wanted to learn. We spent so much time learning the basics, that the ability for all of us to focus on more detail and awareness was impossible if not incredibly taxing. I helped teach knowledge I had and then was criticized by instructors for not taking over and showing off. I taught many of my co-students valuable knowledge, but because I was helping them perform instead of demonstrating high performance myself, my skills were noted as insufficient.
I found my course incredibly frustrating above all. I learned a bit about leadership, but the hard skills (at least in the climbing section) were not new to me. Perhaps it’s my fault for taking a course where I have experience, but if that were the case I would have expected the NOLS administration to direct me to another course. The reviews my instructor gave me during the course pointed out where I could improve in terms of attitude, but in no way told me what I was lacking in skill-set and leadership, or how to fulfill the NOLS learning standards sufficiently. As such my final review was poor, and the grade a shock. I felt that I had improved in all the sections I was told I was lacking, and yet, I still failed in many areas.
Overall I suppose I’m just disappointed. I tried to be outgoing, ask for feedback, and help teach others. I took this course for graduate level credit from the University of Utah, and perhaps my mentality and expectations were beyond what was appropriate. I have outdoor awareness and skill, and I believe this knowledge was harmful in the way I was perceived by the instructors. I think my fellow students valued my input, and yet my teachers struggled to see what help I needed to become a better leader. And it’s all about leadership in the outdoors isn’t it?
Was it worth the money? That has yet to be seen. I took it for credit, so I’m still in the process of writing papers. The poor course grade is making me lean towards no. Was it worth the emotional stress? Probably not. I haven’t been this upset about something that I could have had more control over in years, if ever. Worth the leadership experience? Yes. I had the chance to teach others, and lead our group through unknown terrain. That’s something you don’t get the chance to do everyday. Would I do it again? Defiantly not. Would I recommend NOLS? Only to someone new to the outdoors and taking a course in a field where they had a completely blank slate.
I didn’t learn all I’d hoped for. I’m excited to continue my research for the graduate papers. I’m hoping that the connections I make and things learn through my research will make up for my less than mediocre NOLS course experience. I’m hoping with this article I can set most of it behind me. I’ve learned some things about myself, and the education system. If you’re looking for greatness, you have to find it yourself. Seek it from the realists and experts. And you must always come without any expectations.