Ascent: Learning leadership even before classes begin
by Jim Hale
When Hilary Golas '06 arrived at Gettysburg, she had never gone camping and couldn't imagine why anyone would want to. "I was scared of spiders and bugs, and I hated anything gross," she said. "I was a stranger in the woods."
Since then, Golas and the wilderness have become old friends. In fact, Golas spent this past summer leading 10- to 17-year-olds on multi-day hiking and kayaking expeditions all over New England. This fall, she will continue as a trip leader for Boston University's Sargent Center for Outdoor Education, and she plans to study environmental education in graduate school.
The transformation from tenderfoot to trail boss was "the most important thing that happened to me in college," Golas said. Yet, her metamorphosis began before she ever set foot in a classroom. Like dozens of first-year and transfer students each August, she took part in Ascent, a pre-orientation program that uses outdoor adventures to introduce participants to the College's academic and social expectations and impart life-lessons about leadership and self-discovery.
Ascent's five-day expeditions range from kayaking on North Carolina's Outer Banks to backpacking in West Virginia's high-elevation Otter Creek Wilderness, where frost may occur on any day of the year. In addition to six or seven new students, each trip includes two specially trained upperclass student facilitators as well as one alumnus, faculty member, or administrator who can offer a unique perspective on the Gettysburg experience.
On her Ascent trip, Golas, who said she grew up in Massachusetts "wearing pretty little dresses," found herself lugging a backpack up and down New York's Adirondack Mountains and mastering a kayak on beautiful Lake George. But the experience went far beyond physical challenges and sublime scenery. "After I went on Ascent," Golas said, "I felt more at ease when I got back to school. I learned a lot about myself, and that there's no harm in trying something new. I left with a good group of friends and a better sense of what Gettysburg was all about."
The Ascent adventure also primed Golas to range even farther afield. As a sophomore, in addition to being a member of the College's swimming team, she joined the Gettysburg Recreational Adventure Board (GRAB). As part of the College's Office of Experiential Education, GRAB hires and prepares students to lead Ascent and other wilderness trips for the campus community and alumni. (See related story.) Each GRAB student facilitator receives at least 400 hours of training and field experience, ranging from the subtleties of rock-climbing to group facilitation techniques and life-saving wilderness rescue skills.
Through GRAB, Golas came full circle and led three Ascent trips in various remote areas of Virginia, where participants backpacked and climbed rocks. "As a sophomore, I worried about being nearly the same age as the first-years," she said, "but that's where the training and professionalism came in. Being on the other side, you realize that you were once in their position, and you ask yourself what you would want to experience. First-years are big on impressions, and they had all these questions, from diversity to how the parties are. After a year I could be honest, but I could also tell them what to really focus on."
It would be easy for people to assume that GRAB and Ascent are "just outdoors stuff," Golas said, "but it's a lot more meaningful than that. It's a huge experience in terms of leadership. In job interviews this year, almost everything I mentioned, I learned through GRAB. Without it, I wouldn't have my most meaningful and cherished skills."
Golas's experience is a textbook example of what Ascent and GRAB are all about, said John Regentin, director of the Office of Experiential Education. "It really opened up a whole new avenue of what she was able to do. She found the true value of self, and she became absolutely instrumental in the program's success. She didn't have a lot of experience when she applied to GRAB, but she made it clear how much Ascent had meant to her and how much she wanted to be able to give back to other first-year students." Golas went on to lead a trip to Scotland. Like Golas, this year's student Ascent coordinator, Ken Gates '07 of Madison, Conn., lacked backcountry experience when he took his Ascent trip, but he found he loved the wilderness. "GRAB quickly became the majority of my life at Gettysburg," Gates said. "I made a lot of friends through the program, including my roommate. I was never in a lot of clubs in high school, but I wanted to be in a group, and the idea of learning something new and teaching it to other people really appealed to me."
Gates - also like Golas, a biology major - went on to lead an Ascent trip, a backpack trek through Ramsey's Draft in Virginia. The mountainous wilderness lacked water sources, facing students with the challenge of carrying enough liquids on their backs to survive in sweltering August heat. Despite the difficulty, or perhaps because of it, Ascent worked its magic once again. "The first-years didn't talk to each other on the three-hour trip down, but by day two, people got to know each other and rely on each other and build community," Gates said. "You make dinner with someone you've never seen before, you put up a tent, you ask people for help. After we got back, I saw all of them having dinner together. They still hang out together. It's a bonding experience."
Regentin concurred: "So many friendships come out of Ascent and last through all four years and beyond."
But Ascent goes beyond creating friendships; it also helps determine the context in which they grow. "The first-years coming in all have a lot of questions," Gates said. "They basically want to know what limits they can push. They naturally want to come into a social situation and see how far they can go. But drinking and partying are not what we came here to do. Ascent helps deter that. They ask the facilitators and alumni on the trip about what goes on campus, and we give them honest answers. Students start out assuming that it's all drinking and partying, and they usually have to make some mistakes to learn the truth. Ascent helps them avoid that. It helps them mature faster and learn what community is like."
'The true value of self'
Gettysburg's pre-orientation outdoor program has changed a lot since Regentin arrived at the College in 1995. At that time, Regentin said, an outside firm took larger groups of students on briefer, less focused outings at less isolated locations. But Julie Ramsey, dean of students and vice president of College Life, "wanted students to have an experience that was more about the College's values," Regentin said, "and she asked me if I could do it." Regentin was well suited to the assignment. He earned a bachelor's in recreation and a master's in counseling, both at Radford University in Radford, Va. Through his previous work with young people under court supervision, Regentin had plenty of experience in using the wilderness experience to unlock personal potential. In addition, Regentin called in his former undergraduate advisor to help set up what became the Ascent program: Prof. Gary Nussbaum not only chaired Radford's recreation department, but had a background in religious studies at Swarthmore College and had lived in a monastery. "He has a spiritual presence," Regentin said. "It's not something he pushes. It's about helping people become self-reflective. And, at 58, he can still out-hike and out-climb a lot of students, and they find that inspiring."
With Nussbaum's help, Regentin began identifying the long list of remote locales now included in Ascent and GRAB itineraries. "The Appalachian Trail is beautiful," Regentin said, "but we wanted to find spots where contact with other individuals is limited. I'm looking for remoteness, solitude. It's important for students to have an opportunity to reflect on themselves. It's about them, not about competing for space or feeling crowded."
In addition to wide-open spaces, Ascent trips are also about unhurried time. "Students need enough time to connect with each other and not be distracted, to reflect and be removed from external forces," Regentin said. "A lot of students come in feeling alone or lonely. I feel that four nights and five days are the perfect time to get in and meet people. You can hold your breath for two days, but over five days, you have to consider how others think of you and how you engage with them. How is the group going to respond if your blisters hold everyone up? Your attitude has a lot to do with whether they rally around you. People come back to campus with those kinds of experiences to remember. If you remove the amusement park aspect from the trip, it becomes a lot more intentional."
For Regentin, that intention is in large part to discover "the true value of self." The wilderness experience, he said, "allows us to put aside the pieces of the world that we believe make us tick or are absolutely necessary - the crutches we all have. It could be an iPod or a computer, but in a real relationship we can have a connection. You and I can sit down and talk without distractions, and get to know who you are, not what you are and what you have. We don't have to play the one-up game. Everyone does it when we meet in the adult world. The first thing we ask is ¿What do you do?' And so I put you in a category in the first ten minutes. But that's not your true value. That's just sizing you up. What I want to do is accelerate students through that, so they can talk about what's most important to them. I want to get the juices flowing. It's sad how many people communicate through technology, not with a handshake or eye contact or working through a situation together.
"When we're out in the field, we talk about 'expedition behavior,' all the working relationships that are taking place simultaneously, including your relationship with yourself. Maybe I'm not a morning person, but now it's my responsibility to motivate myself. I have a responsibility to the group. I'm part of an entity bigger than myself, and I have to give something up to gain. If someone in the group has a problem, it's my problem too. You learn to swallow your pride and say 'I need help,' and help other people when they speak up. It's the ideal working relationship when you get back to campus." For example, Gates recounted the story of a first-year woman who faced significant difficulties on her Ascent trip because of asthma and a bad ankle. "The night before the big push," he said, "she decided she'd go through it if the facilitators decided it was safe. Afterward, she thanked everybody for giving her the opportunity to push herself instead of taking challenges away from her. That's the kind of success we have as facilitators. Not wrestling an attacking bear to the ground, but this."
Still, the wilderness does pose real dangers, and GRAB scrutinizes every detail of every trip in search of ways to enhance safety. "We chart everything and give each situation a grade of one, two, or three, from nothing much to cases where somebody needs medical attention. It gives us a chance to avoid problems in the future. If an allergic student gets stung by a bee and goes into anaphylactic shock, that's level three. But if they get stung and we have an EpiPen (a syringe filled with sting antidote), then it's only a one. It's even better if we make sure they're also carrying an EpiPen of their own."
"The level of professionalism I see in our students is amazing," Regentin said. "There aren't many programs out there where someone like Ken not only loads kids into a van, but actually manages six or seven people for five days, and not only gets them home safe, but makes sure they have a meaningful experience with people who are good ambassadors of the College." This past summer, Gates led a trip to Alaska.
The training that GRAB staffers undergo is exhaustive, including a grueling 11-day Wilderness Institute each March, when they not only learn technical skills such as top-rope anchor building for rock-climbing, but also gain environmental awareness ("Leave no trace," is Regentin's mantra) and refine their understanding of the program's goals. Last year, staffers mountaineered in Colorado. This year, they climbed in Arizona. Next year, they will kayak in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition, each staffer is certified as either a Wilderness First Responder, which requires 72 hours of training, or an Emergency Medical Technician, which requires 126 hours. This past May, as staffers prepared to lead their Ascent trips, they conducted a mock disaster on campus. The steps of Musselman Library became a series of mountain ledges littered with fallen climbers. Splattered with theatrical "blood," they moaned and feigned their assigned symptoms. Staffers rendered appropriate care and secured the injured properly for safe removal from the "mountain."
Among those receiving training was political science major Tom Ellison '09, whose own Ascent trip to Hidden Rocks, Va., inspired him to become a GRAB staffer. Gaining six new friends on the trip made his entire first year easier and more fulfilling, he said. "It gives you confidence to find out what you can do, like camping when it's twenty-five degrees at night," Ellison said. "It was something I never thought I could do. And I didn't realize how close people could get in such a short period of time."
Observing the mock disaster was Dr. David Johnson. He is the president and medical director of Wilderness Medical Associates. The Portland, Maine practice trains college students, trail guides, military and law enforcement personnel, and others across the nation in back country emergency medicine. "You have bright kids here," he said. "Some students walk in kind of frightened and insecure, but then they really get into it and get good at it, and you see their pleasure when they make a diagnosis and formulate a good clear plan. Some find things in themselves that they didn't expect. I think it helps them learn, and I think it has applications beyond the medical mission."
Regentin agreed. "My job isn't to train them to be great outdoor professionals, but to be responsible professionals in whatever they do."
The College's wilderness adventures aren't just for students. Each year, trips are offered for alumni, faculty, administrators, and family members. The five- to 14-day Expeditions explore remote areas around the world.
For example, English Prof. Chris Fee has co-led (with John Regentin) two expeditions to the Highlands of Scotland. The outings began at Glasgow, where participants learned about Celtic and Viking history before trekking some 50 or 60 miles on foot, visiting 1,500-year-old fortifications and climbing mountains including Britain's highest, snow-capped Ben Nevis.
"The real highpoint is the interaction between people," Fee said. "Eight to ten people is the perfect size. You get to know everybody, but it's no so small that you're on top of each other."
Other past expeditions included couples from the Class of 1973 kayaking in Alaska and a father and daughter who trekked together through the mountains of Yosemite.
For more information, visit www.gettysburg.edu and click on About the College, Offices, Experiential Education, and Expeditions. You can also contact Associate Director of Experiential Education Kris Nessler '01 at 717-337-6319 or firstname.lastname@example.org.