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DEC. 14, 2018

The Ultimate Question: How Do We Take OA Home With Us?

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Most evenings on the third floor of the sun lodge, there is lots of commotion. A hum of young women getting ready for bedtime, talking about the homework they have due the next day, figuring out who is going to set an alarm for the next morning. Finally, around 9:55 pm the chaos settles and both West and East Side cabins flick on their lamps for the closing of the day; evening meeting. This meeting looks different in each cabin, with each resident, each semester, however one thing I can be certain of is that around this time in the semester the same questions and emotions begin to spring up. “We only have 5 more nights in our cabin!!!” “No, that’s not possible I’m never leaving OA.” “I am going to miss you all so much!” and finally the ultimate question… “How do we take OA home with us?”

As a mentor for many of these young women, this is a hard one to answer sometimes. “No,” I must say, “the sun lodge is pretty rooted to this spot I don’t think it is going anywhere.” and “Yes, it’s true you all will have to leave this coming Saturday.” and unfortunately, “No, you can’t hide out here until next semester.” However, this question of transference is the whole reason to attend a semester school or have any important experience. It is what you can take home with you, how you will share your knowledge that really counts.

This is an ongoing conversation and one that is full of beauty and excitement each way that you look. A way to take a piece of The Outdoor Academy home with you that feels particularly relevant right now, after this semester’s experience of Buffalo Cove and a weekend filled with giving day time and trail maintenance, is simple living. This past weekend, the faculty created a space where our community felt incredibly self sufficient; cooking over fires, building steps in some slippery and muddy trails, and developing skills in sewing, knitting, and carving.

Below I want to share some of the ways that the incredible Semester 47 students want to take home this lesson of simple living from the Outdoor Academy. To share this very important aspect of our school and community with their families, friends, and future selves.

“I’m going to reduce and reuse EVERYTHING! I’m going to use my phone less and hopefully influence my peers to do so as well.” — Anna Benzel

“I will get up with a purpose each morning.” — Wilson Zembo

“I’m definitely going to think more about my wants and my needs.” — Emma Comer

“I’m going to get rid of all my stuff.” — Finlay Bennet and Luci Meyer

“I will surround myself only with positive and needed items, belongings, and people.” — Luci Meyer

“I am going to get rid of social media (no more comparison), stop hoarding things and instead give them away, and finally re-evaluate how I’m spending my time and with who.” — Cesca Medeiros

These students wanted to share their hopes and goals to live simply beyond OA not only for themselves and their peers, but for others to be inspired to take a little piece of The Outdoor Academy into their homes and lives.

Ultimately, there is no exact answer to the question that the young women of the sun lodge asked during our evening meeting, beyond The Outdoor Academy you will likely immediately apply some skills while for others it may take weeks, months, or years to fully understand the lessons learned from this beautiful community. Either way, it’s an exciting new door to step through as our semester begins to come to a close.


By Madison Atterbury, Resident Wilderness Educator 

NOV. 27, 2018

Giving Can Take Many Forms

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If you have not already done so, I highly encourage you to read the most recent OA blog post by Malcolm Campbell-Taylor.  Malcolm, one of our three resident wilderness educators, keenly describes a topic I wish to dive into further: practice, and more specifically, the practice of giving.

Giving is an art form of gratitude, one which, as Malcolm mentioned, can be practiced and refined over time.  It can be rewarding and provide that “warm and fuzzy” feeling we all know. Something just feels right when we have put time, energy, and sincere thought into the well-being of another or something larger than ourselves.  The culmination of that effort is a tangible sign of gratitude. Like a nice dinner with friends, I like to think it is always better homemade rather than bought. I do not mean to say it will necessarily taste better, but it will be your hard work, your appreciation when it turns out to be a deluxe five-star meal or your “teachable moment” when it smells, looks, or tastes like a gray mass (questionably unidentifiable).  This is the beauty of practice: It is okay if something does not work immediately. It’s actually awesome. Upon his invention of the incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison stated, “I have not failed. I have succeeded in proving 10,000 ways that won’t work.” When our students practice giving, they are learning. They are gaining insight into themselves and how they relate to the surrounding world, learning how to show appreciation, and becoming problem-solvers rather than problem-dwellers.

Nevertheless, the nature of giving is inherently a double-edged sword.  It evokes positive feelings such as joy, inspiration, or appreciation. Conversely, giving also carries with it feelings of uneasiness, discomfort, or frustration.  How would you show or tell someone “I’m grateful” in meaningful and relatable way? How do you give feedback that might be tough for you to deliver or for the recipient to digest, knowing your only intent is to support their growth?  Giving isn’t always easy. It requires thought, detail, and personalization, and it might not work the first time or even the second time.

At The Outdoor Academy we embrace this dynamic nature as part of our curriculum and culture. Students practice giving through a variety of opportunities throughout the semester, like giving thanks before meals, making handcrafted gifts for Giving Day, or sharing constructive feedback with peers and faculty.  Every Monday night students and faculty come together for a community meeting and take time to reflect on the progress of the semester.  This is a space to share thoughts, ask for support, and to identify areas of improvement as well as possible and realistic solutions.  At a recent community meeting our natural science teacher, Ted, posed the question, “do you think we are meeting our greatest academic expectations?”  He then asked the students to go the extra mile and set the tone of academic curiosity and perseverance. He shared, “I want to give you a challenge. If I wanted you to sail through and get an easy A, I would give you readings and present concepts that you would always understand instantly.  I want you to ponder, to feel okay with being confused, and to ask questions, because that’s where the real learning happens, when we push those limits.”

I’m sure this was not easy to share, but it was a piece of constructive feedback that gave Semester 47 a new goal. Giving goes in all directions, and as our faculty practice giving by providing intellectually challenging coursework, our students grow as scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, friends, and innovators.  In our hands-on learning environment, we aim to provide students with the drive to continue the practice of giving and the willingness to learn new methods. We ensure our students have a place to try without judgement, identify what works and what does not, and leave each semester having observed and tried giving in ways that will apply to their lives back home.

 Giving can take many forms, as it should.  It can look like kind words in the form of a note or a knitted hat with a hole in the top for that person that needs a ponytail.  It can look like a challenging class project or a lesson on navigation. At OA, our only expectation is that it is based in gratitude for another as well as care and consideration for their growth, and in this season, we hope this culture of giving can be practiced no matter where they go after OA.

By Sarah Post, Admissions Counselor

NOV. 20, 2018

Practicing gratitude

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To paraphrase an anecdote told to students before their second wilderness trek: “One day a person is walking through the woods and stumbles upon a pack of hungry wolves. Oopsy… The person wisely runs away under pursuit of the lupine pack. Said person, whose focus is dominated by dread of the wolves behind them, doesn’t see an impending cliff edge and runs over said precipice; however, as luck would have it, the person is saved from plummeting to their demise by a crag-dwelling branch snagging their collar. Unfortunately, just below, a gang of crocodiles begins leaping up and snapping their wicked jaws mere inches beneath the poor person’s feet. To make matters worse, the person turns around to see a cruel woodchuck chewing away at the branch that suspends our individual above the ravenous reptiles. In the midst of a real bummer of a situation, our protagonist notices some radiant ruby-red strawberries hanging among the leaves of the savior branch. The person eats a strawberry and momentarily pushes their worries aside, wrapped up in the blissful berry bite.

Now it seems unlikely that anyone would ever fall into the above scenario (that being said, if you ever do find yourself in the above scenario, I would suggest postponing the strawberry search and instead maybe looking for either a handhold on the cliff or your Beaver-Be-Gone spray). Despite infrequency of literal wolves and cliff-dangling experiences, we all fall victim to the metaphoric wolves and cliffs of life and it is part of our salvation to find the metaphorical strawberries. It can be easy on trek to see–or even create—our own adversity: “My pack is heavy;” “The avocado is mushed…;” “My shoes are wet;” “The tomatoes are mushed…;” “This uphill is endless;”  “The cheese is sitting in a puddle of mushed avocado/tomato juice…;” “I waaaant CHOCOLATE.” Thus confronted by the wolves of circumstance–or our own devising–one must make an effort and look for gratitude: “Dang! My legs are getting that good workout!” “This waterfall wouldn’t be so big and beautiful if we hadn’t had all that rain.” “Wow, that view was so worth the effort.” “I’m grateful we have enough food to eat.” It’s easy to see what’s wrong and sometimes difficult to see what’s wonderful, but the practice of looking for the latter can affect our outlook and train our brains to naturally seek out the good around us.

However, sometimes circumstances are such that even the savviest spotter of appreciations can be hard-pressed to find something to be grateful for. On our recent student-led trek, we had several days of muddy trails and frigid rain followed by freezing nights. Heroically, my trek group, when unable to find metaphorical strawberries around them, was able to create strawberries of their own: we sang loudly; we choreographed a flash mob; we shared stories; we looked out for one another; and nightly we concluded our circumstantially dreary days with sincere appreciations, spreading warm spirits despite frozen socks and sodden sleeping bags. Unlike in the story, our gratitude was used not as a distraction but as armor to engage in goals and mission despite challenging circumstances. We work through challenges in our OA community, and gratitude for what the spirit of our school means is what makes addressing instead of ignoring said challenges so worthwhile.

“Give thanks!” Before every meal we all link up elbows or hands and pause for a mindful moment to simply appreciate…and then we say, “Give thanks!” Gratitude is one of seven principles practiced at The Outdoor Academy. I believe the word “practiced” is important here. At OA, students practice Math, English, Science, and History. Students practice how to negotiate rapids and rock walls. In practice we gain competency and skill. Gratitude is a skill and we must practice gratitude to develop competency in it. At OA, students practice gratitude. It’s built into our community Monday meetings and its expression is often one of the last things students do before going to bed at night. The giving of handmade crafts on OA’s Giving Day is what concludes a semester’s final night on campus. On that note, as the end of Semester 47 draws near, a sense of gratitude is especially ripe among Semester 47 faculty and students. Gratitude is becoming easier to see, easier to create, and easier to give. We give gratitude to ourselves, to the moment, and to one another. In regards to giving gratitude to one another, we must share our thoughts of appreciation–it’s not enough to think it–we get to Give thanks!

By Malcolm Campbell-Taylor, Resident Wilderness Educator

NOV. 13, 2018

Disconnect To Reconnect

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Imagine a place where you are able to live fully in the present, where you can focus on your surroundings right at that very moment, without distractions.

If you are a student at The Outdoor Academy, this is your reality every day for four months.

Freedom from technological devices can be very rare in this day and age. At The Outdoor Academy, students are granted this freedom, which allows students the ability to fully embrace time with their peers in face-to-face conversation, and to gain deeper experiences and knowledge during their semester at OA.

According to the Pew Research Center article Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018, “smartphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.”

Ever since it was founded in 1995, The Outdoor Academy has been a technology-free haven, allowing young people to experience the natural world and interact with their peers without the interference of technology. We believe that all young people can benefit from a semester at OA. With varying socio-economic backgrounds, as well as varying experiences and connections to the natural world, it may seem that a semester at OA is more accessible to some. However, we strive to make the life-changing experience at The Outdoor Academy possible for any young person who is interested. Through the fundraising efforts of our community, we were able to award scholarships to 53% of students at The Outdoor Academy in 2017.

We are proud to provide the space for a group of young people every semester to unplug from technology as a way to further and more profoundly connect with the natural world. This reconnection to the natural world builds confidence, strengthens relationships, forms a connection with the outdoors, and cultivates community. One of the primary reasons students are able to accomplish these important life-altering skills is because their energy is not lost in technological distractions.

The one exception to OA’s technology-free campus is the communal phone for students. The shared landline phone is available for students to call home, and it is up to the students to monitor and allocate the phone usage. This limited access to technology allows students to check in with loved ones without interfering with the students’ time at The Outdoor Academy.

As smartphones and other technological devices continue to saturate daily life (especially among teens), The Outdoor Academy continues to hold true to its founding principle to provide a space for young people to grow and experience the wonders of the natural world in an environment free from technology. Strong community support and lasting partnerships allow the OA experience to reach more and more young people, all who are able to learn and flourish at The Outdoor Academy in its technology-free and community-rich learning environment.


By Camille Wick, Donor and Alumni Relations Coordinator

NOV. 7, 2018

Instructor-Led Trek: Lessons On and Off the Trail

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Carrying full backpacks and dressed in warm layers, Semester 47 headed out last week on a five-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.  After dividing up group gear and food, taking a series of silly photographs, and circling up for a silent scream, the three trek groups hugged goodbye and loaded onto the buses.  Two hours later, each group set off on the storied trail that travels over 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine to take part in their second trek of the semester, Instructor-Led Trek.

Our location in Western North Carolina, nestled amongst the Blue Ridge Mountains, minutes away from world-class climbing in Pisgah National Forest, and surrounded by rivers with whitewater of varying levels, allows for easy access to adventures of all sorts and enables The Outdoor Academy to hold true to its name.  Over the course of a semester, OA students take part in a variety of outdoor trips, including a progression of backpacking trips, or “treks.”  The day after students arrive, they leave for a three-day Orientation Trek with a group of strangers, and return with new friends and increased confidence on trail.  The grand finale of OA’s outdoor programming is the five-day Student-Led Trek, during which instructors take a back seat and students have the opportunity to test their skills as leaders and team members. 

In between these two trips is Instructor-Led Trek, a five-day excursion designed to round out the knowledge and skills developed on previous backpacking, climbing, and paddling trips in order to prepare students for their final trek. With a few trips already under their belts, and an upcoming trek during which they will have increased responsibility, the students demonstrated an eagerness to learn, practice, and master the technical and interpersonal skills required to lead a trip.  Their sincere dedication to growing as leaders was coupled with a willingness to celebrate their goofier, more energetic sides.  Being on trail for five days allowed for a level of silliness and spontaneity that doesn’t always happen on shorter trips or in more structured settings.  As we hiked, we shared our enthusiasm by yelling our names and what we were excited about in a repeat-after-me format and conducted an entire evening meeting while wearing glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth.  We celebrated Benton MacKaye, the visionary behind the Appalachian Trail, with an impromptu birthday party and exchanged a few jokes about Big Butt Mountain before we quietly enjoyed the view from its summit.

Upon returning from Instructor-Led Trek, during our weekly Community Meeting, a couple of students called for more spontaneity, greater enthusiasm, and increased investment in the traditions that define OA.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that after being reminded of how rich with joy, wonder, and growth a few days spent in the outdoors can be, students are asking one another to bring forward their best selves.  Additionally, as we celebrate the successes of each milestone, we must also grapple with the nearing close of the semester.  The combination of knowing just how full this experience can be, and keeping in mind the ephemeral nature of spending only one semester at OA, has led students to seize ownership of the semester and arrange for tea parties, brainstorm themed days, and sing each song with a little more pep.   

As we prepare to set off on Student-Led Trek this week, each of us carries the knowledge that this is our final trek of the semester and the desire to maximize the fun and learning.  As the students in my group planned our route, they listed the requirements for the trip: lots of views, miles that challenged them physically, and opportunities for stargazing and campfires.  I look forward to creating magic and joy in the wilderness and celebrating the leadership of our students, as well as continuing to bring lessons from our outdoor experiences into our on-campus community.       

By Hannah Ryde, Resident Wilderness Educator

OCT. 23, 2018

Environmental Chemistry at The Outdoor Academy

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This fall The Outdoor Academy added a new class to its curriculum: Environmental Chemistry. I was tasked with the fun challenge of piloting this course, which is not just your average 10th grade chemistry class, but a truly OA chemistry class. What does that mean, a truly OA chemistry class? Well, I’ll let my students do the talking. 

In class yesterday I asked The Outdoor Academy’s inaugural EChem class, a small and wonderful group of only four students, to share what they think about Environmental Chemistry. Some of their responses speak to the style of teaching they’ve encountered here, which often differs from what they’re used to at home. “When teachers don’t lecture you and let you participate in a discussion, it’s more fun and you learn more,” says Anna, a student from Miami Beach, FL. “I don’t feel like I’m being graded, I feel like I’m actually learning. At home, I take a class just thinking about my grade, but now I think, ‘I don’t understand this, I should go back and try again.’”

Others echoed this sentiment. “I put conscious attention [into learning] as opposed to just passing the class,” says Oliver, a student from Los Angeles. Cesca, also from Miami Beach, added, “I want to pay attention because what we’re learning actually matters in the world.” Anna agreed, saying, “it makes us aware of how much chemistry is a part of our lives.”

As a teacher this is gratifying to hear, especially because it speaks to the goals I have for students in EChem. The course objectives I’ve outlined for the class are to understand the chemical components and concepts as they relate to environmental issues, to understand how chemistry is relevant to one’s own life, and to draw connections between chemistry and other physical sciences. I remember taking 10th grade chemistry, and though I loved it, most other students in the class were checked out; they didn’t understand it, or didn’t see how they would ever need to know it, or both. But let me tell you: chemistry is so cool and fascinating and applicable! Okay, I may be biased because I’m a chemistry teacher; but if you don’t believe me, take it from my students.

Anna captured this idea beautifully: “I was always so scared of the periodic table, but now it’s so cool that I know what it is and how it works!” Cesca agreed with this, saying, “it’s nice to have everything make sense! I was expecting it to be a lot heavier on math and things I don’t understand, like traditional chemistry.”

It may not be traditional chemistry, but we still tackle the nitty-gritty of chemistry principles, such as atomic structure, bonding, molecules, chemical reactions, acids and bases, and all that fun stuff. “I love putting the elements together [into molecules], learning about covalent and ionic bonds,” says Cesca. “It’s cool to think that that’s what actually happens.” She also offered the insightful and esoteric observation that atoms aren’t alive, yet they are the components of all living things. I think these students are destined for big things.

Most of the course has focused on learning about environmental issues through the lens of chemistry. One of Oliver’s favorite topics was the atmosphere, learning about greenhouse gases, the layers of Earth’s atmosphere, and how light travels through and interacts with the atmosphere. Right now we’re learning about the hydrosphere. Anna thinks the water cycle is the most interesting concept we’ve learned so far: “how the water at the bottom of one river could end up in an ocean, and then it could end up in Norway in a glacier.” Our next unit will focus on the geosphere, and finally, we’ll learn about the chemistry of climate change.

In summary, the first semester of Environmental Chemistry has been a great success (in my humble opinion). I think we’re on to something here. But if this blog post demonstrates nothing else, I think the takeaway is that the students here at The Outdoor Academy are simply incredible. 

I’ll close with a quote from Rebecca, a student from Washington D.C. This warmed my heart to hear, and, in my mind, summarizes perfectly why Environmental Chemistry is so important. “It’s really cool learning about what we’re walking around in,” she told me. “We’re connecting what we’re learning to things that are relevant, and not just the environment, but politics and people’s lives.” 

                    See? Chemistry is so cool.

 By Caroline Lauth Quarrier, Environmental Chemistry Teacher