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SEP. 12, 2018

A Transformative Experience at OA? Prove It!

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Fall at The Outdoor Academy in full swing! Orientation Trek was a success, classes have picked up steam, and we enjoyed time on the river and rocks during our first Paddle-Climb weekend. As I have watched the students of Semester 47 come together as a community and, generally, dive into the excitement of life at OA, I am thrilled to see the learning that is taking place. Whether it is a new idea in English, bear safety in the wilderness, or simply the rhythm of the daily life in a new environment, students have been learning since the day they set foot on campus here in Pisgah Forest. The lessons both in the classroom and out, coupled with the uncertainty of a new place and the intentional challenges facilitated by our faculty, create daily opportunities for students to grow. Indeed, I am struck by the changes both minor and major that I have witnessed here in the first two weeks of school.

As we have settled into Semester 47, the word “transformative” has come to my mind frequently. A parent of an alum referred to her son’s experience as transformative in an email last week. Faculty speak in terms of transformation when discussing our academic, residential life, and wilderness programming. In chatting with administrators at sending schools, I find myself returning to a discussion of enthusiastic young people taking advantage of a unique opportunity afforded by OA to transform aspects of their lives. As I have gotten to know this school, learned from our long-time faculty members, and connected with alumni, I continually hear about this theme of transformation.

But, aren’t we always changing? Isn’t that life? A continuous series of transformations? It can certainly seem that way, especially these days, as I watch my infant son Elem change constantly. When I hear of an event or an experience having been “transformative” for a person in a manner beyond the simple passage of time and realities of human growth and development, the historian in me jumps to attention. I want to know more.

What transformed? How did it transform? How do you know? Would other people share your perspective? What is your evidence? Your documentary support?

In some ways, this part of me can be a skeptic. Now, please don’t confuse my skepticism with pessimism, as I fully embrace the transformative potential of an experience at a place like The Outdoor Academy. My academic inclinations, however, demand that I refuse to accept these transformations as a matter of course, regardless of the belief I have in the power of this type of learning to change lives.

Last year, Dr. Roger Herbert, my predecessor, and the heads of 10 other semester schools decided that the endless anecdotes about passions ignited and lives changed as a result of a semester school like OA were not enough. Having seen the proof in the proverbial pudding, those of us who know this part of the educational landscape fully understand the good that comes from a semester school experience, but it was time to make that case more effectively to the world.

The Semester School Network, of which OA is a member, put together a request for proposals and ultimately awarded a grant to a team of researchers in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the University of Utah College of Health. Led by Dr. Jim Silbthorp, who has done similar research for groups like The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and The American Camp Association, a group of professors and doctoral candidates is currently conducting a multi-year study about the transformative nature of a semester school education.

The first phase of the study concluded recently after the team spent several months conducting surveys and phone interviews with semester school alums from around the country, and their findings are exciting. Alums from OA and our peer schools reported that their experience helped them develop critical twenty-first century competencies, like empathy, resilience, a growth mindset, and collaborative problem-solving skills. What’s more, alums reported that these competencies play a major role in how they conduct their lives to this day. The data suggest that, indeed, a semester school experience is a transformative event in a young person’s life. As the competiveness of the college admissions process grows and the demands of changing economies dictate the need for a new type of 21st-century worker, the development of these kinds of character traits and social-emotional skills will play an increasingly-significant role in helping young people distinguish themselves.

This fall, we are moving into the second phase of the study. Students at OA and 10 other peer schools took a baseline survey during orientation week, and they will keep journals about their reflections on their activities over the course of three separate weeks of their semester. Additionally, students enrolled in spring semesters will take surveys while at their sending schools, as will our fall students when they return home in the spring. The focus of this portion of the project is to identify the specific mechanisms for transformation that help students develop the skills and competencies that the phase one surveys identified as being particularly strong facets of the semester school experience. Our goal is to better understand on a deep level what it is that we do so well so that we can amplify those elements of our curricula and programming. From there, it’s up to the students to go out and make a positive impact wherever they go.

It is indeed an exciting time to be a part of what is happening at schools like The Outdoor Academy. As I walk around campus, join students for meals, and hear about the rich topics they are studying in class, I cannot help but to feel validated in my decision to take a job at OA. The educator and parent in me know intuitively that these students are undergoing wonderful transformations, and the opportunity to take part in crafting an experience that has immense potential to positively impact—and, indeed, transform—a young person’s life is quite a rush. Thanks to the University of Utah, now, the scholar and the skeptic in me are starting to more fully understand why I was drawn to The Outdoor Academy in the first place.

By Glenn Delany, Director of The Outdoor Academy