Group Shot

Brothers (and sisters)-in-arms -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale students take time for a photo op in a Utah desert.  The group developed both leadership skills and a sense of camaraderie as part of a three-week summer course in expedition leadership.  Pictured (from left) are instructor Whitney C. Ward with students Sean M. York, James D.  Holloway, James E. Wieman, Samantha J. Cooke, Ashley B. Wakefield, Cory M. Dack, Elisha L. Szyjka, Clayton J. Sheehan, Cara M. Dunn, Robert L. Bailey and Nathan T. Sargeant.  (Photo provided) Download Photo Here

January 27, 2010

Outdoor leadership course transforms students

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Sand.  Snow.  Solitude. 

The combo makes for a unique “classroom” for Southern Illinois University Carbondale students taking Recreation 431, a summer course that develops and tests leadership skills in Utah’s high desert and alpine regions.

“The formal goal is to help students develop into effective outdoor leaders -- to manage a camp or lead trips,” said Utah native Whitney C. Ward, an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Health Education and Recreation.

“A lot of other things happen in the process -- increases in self-confidence, a clearer understanding of where they want to go in life, the bonds that happen with other class members through being together 24 hours a day for three weeks.  You see the good, the bad, the clean, the sticky….”

The 2009 group -- three graduate students, one senior, seven juniors and a sophomore -- spent late May and early June exploring parts of the San Rafael Swell, a vast, dry sweep of mesas, cliffs, buttes and canyons, and the craggy La Sal mountains, Utah’s second tallest range.  (This year’s trip runs from May 24 to June 9.)

Last year’s literal high point included a climb to the top of Mount Peale, at 12,721 feet, the range’s uppermost peak.

“The reason we chose these areas is because there are different skills and different knowledge the students have to utilize,” Ward said.

“When they leave SIUC, they will be able to transfer the knowledge they gained in these diverse environments into their jobs. 

“It’s also a lot of fun.”

Students developed the course budget, planned travel and hiking routes, figured out ration needs, and prepared and taught class sections based on an 18-point curriculum developed by the Wilderness Education Association.  That curriculum aims to hone competence in judgment, outdoor living skills, planning and logistics, risk management, leadership, environmental literacy and teaching ability.  Successful completion can lead to the wilderness group’s outdoor leader certification, a key credential for those planning a career in the field.

Students also took turns guiding the expedition.

“They have the opportunity to exercise and experiment with their leadership style, and they get feedback not only from their instructors but from each of the students evaluating things that went well and things they could improve,” Ward said.

Samantha J. Cooke, a 26-year-old graduate student originally from Manteca, Calif., got first crack at what they call “leader of the day.”

“I took it so seriously -- it was my day to show everyone what I could do,” she remembered. 

“I dressed the part:  I wore a skirt, my hair was pulled back, my glasses were on, I was ready to go.  We had debriefings every night.  Those were the moments I learned the most.  You could see through the trip that people started to change, to take the constructive criticism they got and implement it.”

James E. Wieman, a 21-year-old junior from Roscoe, “where the tallest thing is a corn stalk,” he said, shared leader-of-the-day duties with Cooke the day they climbed Mount Peale.

“None of us had ever climbed a mountain so there was an element of not knowing what played into it,” Wieman recalled. 

“We did this as a group, moved at a pace everyone in the group could handle.  Patience is a great thing I learned.  I still struggle with it, but I know that’s a problem I need to face.

“At the top, I had a natural high.  It was such a great feeling to be up there.  Looking down at our bus that said SIU and seeing it look smaller than my thumb -- that was pretty cool.”

Ward requires students to keep journals while on the trip and to write in them at least once a day.  These journals play a key role during the solo experience, where students spend a night in the desert alone.

“I reflected a lot on my life, what I am doing, where I am going in the future,” Cooke said.

For Wieman, this opportunity for introspection proved a peak experience.

“I found myself journaling about how much I had grown,” he said. 

“I found myself crying with all the emotion going through me.  And then to come from that high point back to the group -- to my friends who were there to pick me up and be with me.  Everyone I went on the trip with I still keep in contact with -- it’s a pretty amazing group of friends.”

Looking back these several months later, both students said their experience in Utah transformed them.

“I am not the same person I was when I left Carbondale,” Cooke said.  “I am a lot more confident and a lot more sure about myself and my decision-making and thought processes.  I trust myself a lot more.  I have a better grasp of who Samantha J. Cooke is.  I can do anything.”

Said Wieman,  “It’s had an effect for the good on every aspect of my life -- job performance, friends, relationships, school work.  I don’t watch TV much any more; I would rather be outside if I have free time.  I’m more concerned about others now.  I’m wanting to talk things out; I don’t let issues sit any more.  As a result of feedback, I’m more able to see faults in myself and grow from them.  I’m more positive; I have more initiative.  I’m more of a person who will do things, where before I wouldn’t have stepped up to a challenge.  I think if someone asked me to do pretty much anything, I could do it.”

What would Wieman say to other students who are thinking about signing up for next year’s trip?

“Do it,” he said.  “Bottom line:  This course changes your life.”


Rocky -- After making it to the top of
Utah's 12,721-foot Mount Peale, a
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
student exults.  Twelve SIUC students
scaled the mountain and backpacked
through the desert last summer as
the "final exam" in their quest to
become certified as wilderness
guides.(Photo provided)
Download Photo Here