Moving through snowy backcountry mountains is sheer joy for Finnish-born Eeva Latosuo. But amid all that high-latitude athleticism, her APU students quickly learn that there’s a more to an OS degree than navigating safely from Here to There.
OS students often are attracted to the degree because they envision an active life, packed with climbing, skiing and wilderness expeditions that are intense, challenging and fun. There’s no denying that Outdoor Studies offers all that, for our students and us faculty alike.
But within a few semesters, OS majors begin to notice something: What they’re really learning — in subtle and robust ways — is what it takes to live a meaningful life, grounded in professionalism and prepared for leadership in and out of the mountains.
Let me give you an example.
Student Nick Jenkins, a senior in the OS program, shared his biggest adventure with a crowd gathered in April as APU celebrated 20 years of our Outdoor Studies degree. “My Biggest Adventure” is the title of his short documentary. Instead of detailing an epic journey spent braving snow and ice, the movie explores Nick’s response to becoming a father at age 20. Parenthood, Nick told us, changed his life as a student and outdoor enthusiast.
What I remember most is Nick’s epiphany as he described ways that his OS education had prepared him for fatherhood. Courses like Winter Wilderness Skills and Expedition Leadership had taught this bright, self-aware student how to turn a challenging situation into a most amazing opportunity.
Nick is right. Like child-rearing, expedition courses are hard work, physically, mentally and emotionally. OS students enrolled in remote expeditions must learn to deal with peers whom you cannot quit just because you feel like it or if you can’t get along.
OS students gain discipline that comes from rising every day, knowing that they must fine-tune responses to outdoor living and travel, including adapting to things they cannot control like weather, terrain and their own learning challenges. Our students put on miles, pitches and skin tracks even when their bodies are signaling they’ve had enough.
When it’s all over, OS students gain the deep satisfaction that comes from knowing they’re able to be tough when it counts. They’ve gained problem-solving skills and first-hand knowledge of the value of a positive attitude. They know—in ways that no lecture may impart—that difficulty is overcome by working together and committing to an environment where everyone may thrive and learn.
But don’t misunderstand: OS academics also instill highly valued professional skills. My favorite course to teach is Snow Science 2, an upper-level field research class. Each student formulates an intriguing question in avalanche science and goes to work learning as much as he or she can in one semester. Students meet in seminars to discuss scientific articles and develop methods to test research ideas. Students gather evidence. They write a report for a submission to a professional snow science conference.
I’m always astounded at ways that our students absorb information and creatively apply scientific inquiry. Especially because I know that what they really want to do is ski! They learn that snow is not only a playground, a stage for self expression. Investigated in a rigorous, organized way, snow instead becomes a medium for challenging research.
OS students and I both gained new appreciation in September 2012 when three students from a recent Snow Science 2 class presented posters at an international Snow Science Workshop. One of the students delivered an oral presentation to a group that included some of the best known snow science scholars in the world.
As OS major Sal Candela learned, active learning projects connect our students with a professional network and chances to contribute to real-world research. At the poster session, Sal’s findings about the integrity of improvised snow anchors provoked lively discussion; that led to Sal to collaborate on a combined data set with a New Zealand researcher. The two are preparing for the next international conference in 2014, in time for Sal to be well positioned for grad school.
Our students graduate with impressive expedition resumes and significant outdoor skills. But what they also gain is professionalism that transfers to just about any endeavor where positive, supportive leadership is needed, and where the ability to communicate well and resolve conflicts is valued.
OS teaches what it takes to manage a project from start to finish—to literally and figuratively get from here to there.
And OS instills resiliency, just as proud parents Nick Jenkins and Iris Nawiesniak so thoughtfully remind us.
By Eeva Latosuo, 2008 winner of APU’s Teacher of the Year Award — This article originally appeared in the APU Summit Magazine, Summer 2013.