In Randy Dowd’s outdoor education classes everything is a metaphor.
When he teaches about navigating through the woods, mountains, rivers and other obstacles, he discusses how that transfers to navigating through life’s obstacles. When the students practice rock climbing, they compare the personal challenges they encounter on the rock wall with the difficult decisions they face day-to-day. And when they learn a new skill, be that cross-country skiing or archery, they review how getting out of one’s comfort zone in nature translates to pushing themselves to be better in school and work.
It’s with that unique brand of education that Dowd hopes to instill in his students two things: the importance of connections and a sense of possibility.
“Our primary goal for all of our courses is building connections,” Dowd said. “That’s what proves to lead to health and wellness. Getting them outdoors and connected with nature, as well as building connections between themselves and others. Also building up positive connections with themselves and their abilities.”
Dowd, an alumnus of APU’s Master of Arts Program and Doctor of Psychology program and a current APU adjunct professor is the founder of Onward and Upward, an adventure-based educational program for at-risk kids with a focus on experiential learning.
Dowd, like many of the students he mentors now, was once an at-risk kid.
“I struggled a bit,” Dowd explained. “That is, until I went through an outdoor wilderness program that in hindsight shaped who I am. That realization is what inspired Onward and Upward.”
Dowd’s road to Alaska was a winding one. After graduating high school in Pennsylvania, he joined the Marines where he served as an Aircraft Recovery Specialist stationed at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, CA and did a tour in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope in the early ‘90s.
After finishing his contract, Dowd decided to move to Alaska, for what he called “the big adventure.” He started working at the Alaska Zoo, a role that affirmed his desire to work in a wilderness setting.
“I realized while talking about the environment with these kids there, their basic needs weren’t being met,” Dowd said. “They were struggling psychologically. As long as they were in survival mode, they weren’t able to care about things like the environment. That’s what eventually led me in the direction of psychology and counseling.”
Dowd had started Onward and Upward in 2007 when he was living in Kenai and working for the Office of Children’s Services and an environmental company.
“It was my passion,” Dowd explained. “But back then, it was just a hobby.”
When Dowd’s wife got a job as a principal in the Valley, he too decided he was ready for a change and committed himself to making his non-profit a full-time effort.
To do so, Dowd decided to enroll in APU’s Master of Arts Program to focus on developing a program that would get kids active and outdoors and then the PsyD program, to create the curriculum for it.
“The Master of Arts Program gave me the freedom to explore what I was interested in,” Dowd said. “Having the insight of those professors was important. Then the PsyD program really allowed me to apply my personal interests in the realm of counseling psychology.”
Once Dowd finished his degrees, he rebranded and re-launched his non-profit.
“After that, we met with the Mat-Su Health Foundation and they saw the potential for the company, so they supported us with a 3-year grant for salaries for myself and a couple others,” Dowd said. “Without that, this would have never happened.”
From there, Dowd went into various schools and pitched his idea. Burchell High School was the first to sign on. Dowd said Burchell’s administration was welcoming from the start and soon after other schools followed suit.
“They were enthusiastic about the program because they could see how it was affecting their kids, not just in our class, but throughout all of their classes,” Dowd said.
During the winter months, Onward and Upward is in a couple schools in the Valley and Anchorage applying their own curriculum in lieu of traditional gym classes. In some of their schools, they do a health and wellness class and in others, the non-profit focuses on archery and Native Youth Olympic sports.
In the summer, they transition to what Dowd says will one day allow them to be financially self-sufficient: backpacking expeditions and adventure academies. The former focuses on teamwork, leadership skills, risk management, goal setting, and expeditionary tasks, while the latter teaches students to get out of their comfort zones and embrace challenges through activities like high ropes courses, hiking, and fishing.
The mission, Dowd said, is to strengthen youth, their families, and the community through these outdoor pursuits.
“We’re a prevention program at the end of the day and we work with kids to help empower them before they go down the wrong road and get into trouble,” Dowd said. “Ideally we empower them to walk a more positive line. That’s how we’ll benefit the community as a whole.”