When I heard about The Outdoor Academy over 20 years ago, like many people, my first thought was “if only I could have gone to OA when I was 16…”  I was not a parent yet, and my memories of being 16 were still very present. It was my reflection on those memories that prompted me to recognize the sheer brilliance of Helen Waite, Ted Wesemann, and others on OA’s founding committee who had the wisdom to design OA for 10th and 11th graders.

One of my great inspirations, Maria Montessori, described adolescents as having “a state of expectation, a tendency towards creative work, and a need for the strengthening of self-confidence… For success in life depends in every case on self-confidence, and the knowledge of one’s own capacity and many-sided powers of adaptation.” I saw OA as filling that societal void of a “rite of passage” that seems inherently instrumental as one moves from childhood to adulthood.  When I recognized The Outdoor Academy was both a place I knew I would have loved as a 15 year old and a place where all these developmental needs of teenagers were being met, I was amazed. I wanted to spread the word.

My strong belief in OA has been further fueled by my observations and the countless stories I would hear from students and their parents.  Additionally, I have seen over the years that this school does exactly what they say they are going to do. The mission of Eagle’s Nest, “the betterment of human character and connection to the natural world,” is something I see infused in everything the faculty does every day of the semester. As I’ve experienced, it is rare to see a school or organization staying so true to its mission. These things have inspired in me a deep passion for this place.

Then I became a parent of an OA student, and my perspective changed. My son, who is a junior in high school this year, had the opportunity to attend OA last semester, Spring 2019, Semester 48. That experience, his experience, and mine through him, has deepened my appreciation and understanding of what an Outdoor Academy semester does for students.  My son has always been a great kid and a strong student, but as he moved through his first year and a half of high school, his enthusiasm for his classes faded. He wasn’t feeling challenged. He, like, many fifteen and sixteen-year-olds struggled with self-confidence and hesitated to put himself out there socially. His social life left him to primarily interact with others via his cell phone, YouTube, and video games. Despite the limits we put on technology and his trials of self-regulating his use, we never quite found the balance, and it seemed he spent more time staring at screens than anything else. I know our family isn’t unique in this way.

Now, here is the part that brings tears to my eyes and peace to my heart. In the two weeks following his semester, he was quiet, perhaps a little sad. That was hard to see. I started to wonder if this “rite of passage” as I saw it, was not relevant for this day and age. Perhaps, gaining this sense of belonging, developing deep connections to others and to the natural world, and having the opportunity to be so inspired intellectually just set him up to be disappointed. I reflected on what Maria Montessori said, “The consciousness of knowing how to make oneself useful, how to help mankind in many ways, fills the soul with noble confidence, almost religious dignity.”  Throughout his semester, the things he was sharing had certainly appeared as if he was gaining that “knowing.” As I remembered something I heard from alumni, that what they learned at OA continued to unfold over the years, and from Susan, our Student Dean, “give it time,”  I realized I needed to be patient. Finally, I remembered the most important thing – the OA semester was his experience, not mine.

Luckily, I didn’t have to give it too much time. He came out of that short slump pretty quickly, and the child I saw before the semester began was no longer that. My son had become a young man.

There were so many things I could see that were different in him. It’s hard to say what the biggest or the best transformation was/is, but I think I am most comforted by the fact that he seems to truly know who he is now AND he likes what he sees.  His self-esteem grew in leaps and bounds. His personal accountability is inspiring. His communication skills are mature.  He has an active social life!  He is now seeks out other like-minded peers in school.  After school, instead of going straight up to his room, he hops on his bike or he reads for a while. On the weekends, instead of staring at screens or arguing with me about it, he is out hiking, paddling, climbing, and more with his friends. (And sometimes, he even asks to do things with me!)

Now that he knows himself more deeply and feels more confident, decisions have become clearer. He knows what he wants out of life. This has led him to know what type of learning environment he hopes for in a college community. When we get to that phase, when I am sending him off, I now know he is truly ready. He’ll be ready to make wise choices, find his people, and care for himself. I know he will be accountable to his studies and will actively pursue classes he is passionate about. And best of all, I know that he knows what makes him happy and I know he will seek that out. The bonus is I also know that college admissions counselors love to see programs like The Outdoor Academy on a student’s application. It demonstrates that the student has already lived away from home, will engage academically, and can thrive in a learning community.

Perhaps The Outdoor Academy isn’t for everybody, but I believe most teenagers have a lot to gain from this type of experience.  The semester is not a “one and done” experience but is instead a series of lifelong lessons that continue to unfold over time. Personally, I rest easier at night knowing that my son has been strengthened for life by the wisdom, tools, and memories he gained from the pivotal four months he spent “learning away.” I know, as parents, we want many things for our children but, above all else, we want our children to be happy.  I believe OA helps nurture that and so much more. 

by Julie Holt, OA Alumni Parent