Eagle Rock’s 66th trimester (ER 66) brought us 10 fresh-off-the-bus students and a return to the wilderness for our New Student Wilderness Orientation Course. The program remains among the staples of the Eagle Rock School student experience and, in fact, we have been conducting these courses since the school’s founding in the early-1990s.
Three times a year, we gear up and head out to the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, or the Lost Creek Wilderness in Colorado for a 24-day backpacking course. The trips also include rock climbing, rappelling and a three-day solo experience.
This orientation program places students in unique situations, during which they have the opportunity to gain valuable learning experiences. This learning is made possible by placing students in a new, unfamiliar setting (wilderness) where they must rely on themselves and each other to succeed, and where the usual distractions of adolescent life — smartphones, TV, fast food, drugs and alcohol, cars, malls, cosmetics and hair products — are absent.
Underlying this novel setting and providing the basis for change is a foundation of trust and the student’s perception of the wilderness as a setting riddled with danger and risk. Overcoming the unique problems that a wilderness trip typically presents requires a cooperative effort among all group members.
Putting together the “wilderness puzzle” of problems leads to feelings of accomplishment, enhanced self awareness and self control, as well as a feeling of personal responsibility for self, others and the natural environment. In the end, the skills that students develop on the course will help them successfully contribute to the Eagle Rock community and ultimately to society as a whole.
Courses are 24 days in length due to the fact that it usually takes an individual about three to four weeks to develop a habit or change a behavior. We think 21 days is the minimum amount of time we can spend in the field to effect positive changes. Most students don’t become aware of, or begin working on, changing behaviors until five to eight days into the course, so the task for us is to have students continue the work they started on the wilderness trip back on campus.
While on the wilderness course, students are working on skills related to Eagle Rock’s mission and philosophy (8+5=10) in the following categories:
- Expanding Knowledge Base
- Effective Communication
- Healthy Life Choices
- Engaged Citizenship
- Leadership for Justice
Most new students arrive at Eagle Rock with little to no visibility as to what many of these categories mean. Both instructors and other students throughout the course give verbal and written feedback to students individually and in groups.
If there were a “final exam” for our wilderness program — and there certainly is not such an exam — it would be the Presentation of Learning (POL) each of these new students delivers at the end of the course. Wilderness POLs provide the perfect opportunity for our new students to reflect on and share the lessons they learned during the wilderness course. It’s a means for students to distill their month long experiences into a few Major Learning’s that will stick with them long after this wilderness trip.
To help prep for their POL, the students work with Eagle Rock staff members and Public Allies fellows to think through their trip, prioritize their major lessons, develop visuals, make note cards, and practice their presentations. Within a couple of days they are ready to present in front of the community.
The students did a particularly great job this trimester with their POLs. They spoke eloquently about their lessons, and they had many great examples and details from the trip. Many spoke of developing patience and learning how to manage their anger. Most also mentioned the necessity of drinking water and taking care of themselves on a personal level.
A major theme of the POLs was learning how to stay centered — even when other students and staff were pushing their buttons. One student spoke of “learning to control my mouth when I am upset by taking time to myself.” Another student spoke about “having empathy with others during conflict and observing things from their point of view.”
There was an almost visible sigh of relief when the students completed this first POL and headed back into the larger Eagle Rock community. Along with relief was the confidence gained by having completed their New Student Wilderness Orientation experience. The next step is ERS 201, the transition class and then veteran student classes. Congratulations ER 66. Keep up the good work!