It was a beautiful fall day — the air crisp but the sun warm, the grass a brilliant green but the trees starting to show hints of orange and burgundy — as I pulled onto OA’s campus earlier this month to begin work as OA Admissions Counselor.
Eleven years ago, I arrived on this same campus as a nervous 15 year-old to slightly colder January weather, although the air was crisp and clear that day, too.
That first week in 2009 is a bit of a blur, but I do remember specific things. Mainly, I know that heading out onto our orientation trek the next day was one of the most challenging experiences I had ever had. The hiking was tough, the people were new, and it was way colder than my Piedmont sensibilities were accustomed to.
However, as I was resting on a tree stump that first afternoon after a particularly demanding uphill climb, one of the resident wilderness instructors leading my group plopped down beside me with a cheery “Hey, how’s it going?” He had clearly observed my struggling, and was doing his best to check-in without making me uncomfortable.
It worked. I’m not sure he realized then how much of a difference it made to me that day. I felt seen, and was reassured that I was going to be okay here during this new and potentially scary, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Since that spring, I have studied chemistry and organized for environmental justice at Haverford College; taught in an STEM education laboratory in Philadelphia; solo-travelled around Europe as part of a work-stay program; and, most recently, taught hands-on ecology on an island off the North Carolina coast for two years. Each of those experiences I can somehow trace right back to OA — my appreciation for studying the natural sciences, my conviction to working for environmental justice, my willingness to take a risk and buy that one-way plane ticket to Norway to jump start my five months abroad.
Now, I’m returning to this place at a time when the education you get here feels even more critical than it did when I was a student. This September was the warmest one yet worldwide, narrowly beating last year’s previous record. This year, people are spending more time meeting each other and learning together via screen than ever before.
This year, I had to quarantine for two weeks before coming to campus and then distance myself from others once I arrived.
That last point was only the first of many things that are different about OA than they were 11 years ago. Allow me note just a few others that feel especially poignant right now:
- Meals: We still eat meals in community — how rare these days! — but we’re spread out in the Whole Kitchen instead of nestled together in the Sun Lodge. The location won’t seem weird to any of my friends who also attended Eagle’s Nest Camp, and in the end it just makes sense. Clear days see the Quad patterned in rings of climbing rope with knots noting how far away faculty should sit to keep our students’ campus bubble safe. Laughter rings out among the cabins, and we give thanks in a big circle that feels as powerful as any Sun Lodge table.
- Curriculum: Students still take English and Environmental Seminar, two of the courses that most impacted me during my five months at OA. However, the curriculum is also changing — and for the better. Tied in with Eagle’s Nest’s larger analysis of its own diversity, equity, and inclusion work, OA faculty are actively working to maintain a deep respect for classic conservation writing while adding new voices to reading lists and introducing students to a wider variety of female thinkers, indigenous environmentalists, and authors of color.
- CIRCLES: another amazing curricular change, now the activities around leadership and conflict resolution and self-awareness (Real Colors, anyone?) that I remember doing are all tied together into a cohesive, semester-long course that challenges students to think about and discuss complex issues (from ethics to healthy relationships to conflict resolution). I find myself wanting to take the class whenever I walk by!
- Health protocols: Cleaning chores use bleach instead of vinegar, and specific staff members — not students — serve those Whole Kitchen meals. Work crew stays on campus. Only residents and select faculty interact directly with students.
The final point may feel like a loss at first glance, but I believe that these are actually all examples of The Outdoor Academy at its finest. They showcase a nimble, flexible organization that is set up to adapt and thrive in even the toughest of global environments. They are demonstrations of the same character qualities that this school works every day to instill in its students through the CIRCLES curriculum.
They are examples of what the world needs right now.
Right now, so many of us need someone to do that kind of check in that my resident did for me after that long, uphill January climb. Life can feel overwhelming these days, and it’s hard to see big-picture solutions if you’re stuck in the scary details. A casual “Hey, how’s it going?” just might be the reminder we need to reset and remember that there is a light at the end of every tunnel.
Returning to OA has shown me that here, that reminder is present every day.
By Katie Rowlett, OA Admissions Counselor