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DEC. 23, 2013


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Many alumni use their OA experience as the topic for their college application essay. Here’s one great example from Hannah Helmey, Semester 34:

I can pinpoint the moment it truly dawned on me: while struggling to carry my weight and a forty-pound backpack up a mountain while leading eight other people, I felt discouraged, nervous, and frustrated. The mountain towered over my exhausted body, barely held up by puny, cramping leg muscles. I remembered what I had been told about leading a group in an extroverted world, and I strove to harness my own quiet power. To do this I would have to throw off the yoke of fear and self-doubt that had shadowed me for too long.

Like so many stories, it started with simple boredom. I was tired of monotony. I craved adventure, excitement, an escape from the suburbs. Opportunity arose in the form of the Outdoor Academy: a semester-long boarding school located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The idea had hovered in the back of my mind for years, but only in the summer before my tenth grade year did I seriously consider attending. On the drive back to Atlanta after a trip to the mountains, I watched the old Appalachians fade into a blue haze before the land eventually flattened out, and I knew I wanted to stay. The Outdoor Academy, or OA, is based on experiential education and teaches wilderness, leadership, and community skills while providing a rigorous education. My decision to go was based on a love of nature, a desire to meet like-minded people, and to have a unique academic experience. Of course, choosing to pack up and leave home for four months was one of the hardest decisions I have made, but it is one I have never regretted. The choice was fraught with fear and confusion, and it made me realize something I had never before noticed: I was a coward. To make real progress, I would need to step out of my comfort zone. I did, and in the process learned about my unknown capacity for bravery, wildness, and leadership.

I arrived at OA a frightened girl, and by the end had grown into a resilient, capable young woman. Whether it was through trying new foods like kale or fresh rabbit, rappelling down a cliff face, or speaking up in class, every day provided an opportunity to test my endurance and learn about my own abilities. The ceaseless encouragement by my peers and faculty mentors allowed me to see various truths I had never known: others could see the potential I was blind to, there was no need to hold back for fear of judgment, and it was better to live free and slightly embarrassed than weighed down by heavy regrets. There is an obvious bravery in climbing mountains and confronting one’s peers, but courageousness can be seen in smaller things too—dressing up for no occasion, running down a hill screaming at the moon, and squishing one’s toes deep into the mud. For some, letting loose is a skill that has to be taught. To accomplish life’s great achievements, the little moments are just as essential as the big.

The next step in my self-discovery was to embrace the inner wild. Each generation continues to seek and invent new thrills—through cars, roller coasters, or the Internet. Many do not realize that the greatest thrill—and the greatest peace—can be found in Earth’s natural landscape. I saw herds of elk roaming, ran barefoot through the woods, and spent a solitary day and night at my own creek-side campsite. These experiences stripped my life to its simple core. Under the pines and rhododendrons of those misty hills, I felt the truth I had blinded myself to before. To be wild is to be free.

Summiting that mountain led to the discovery of my own leadership abilities. At the top, I recalled the fear and cautiousness that had plagued me before, and I promised myself I would not be scared anymore—scared of my friends, my education, my future, and, most importantly, myself.