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Ask a Nomad: Jeff Nichols and Brent Olson

group of campers

by Trey Hansen (’16)

Professors Jeff Nichols and Brent Olson sat beside me and across from me with their heads up and cold beers in hand. They were deep in thought as they reflected on an unusual educational experience they co-led approximately one year earlier. Accompanied by one program coordinator, Jeff and Brent embarked on a 10,000-mile, 82-day journey in two vans loaded with 14 students, their books, and camping gear.

This is a condensed version of the interview that took place—a piece that will do no justice to what I consider to be one of my alma mater’s greatest ideas: a truly Westminster expedition.

What possessed you both to do this?

Brent: “I was in the process of thinking about what it meant to provide small- and large-scale, field-based learning opportunities for students. Specifically, how that might look at Westminster. I had an outlandish dream of spending a semester out on the road with students, and I am stupid enough to share my dreams with Jeff, who happens to be crazy enough to actually pursue them.”

Jeff: “Westminster was ready for it. The students were ready for it, and we faced no objections from faculty members or those in the administration. After two years of preparation, there was little doubt that this would be a successful trial.”

No, really. What possessed you to do this? 

Brent: “I wanted to prove that we could do it and we did. I wanted to prove that it was viable, valuable, and that students could learn a ton. I wanted to demonstrate to other on-campus programs that field-based learning could work for any number of disciplines, topics, and themes; that it would fit perfectly, almost seamlessly, into their programs. You don’t need to spend months in a van on the road, but theatre, public health, business students, and more could benefit from occasionally escaping the walls of a classroom and learning in the field.”

smiling camper

Jeff: “For me, it was a little selfish. We spoke with individuals directly and deeply impacted by environmental issues as well as industry experts throughout the Western United States. The students heard from 67 scheduled guest lecturers, had the opportunity to network with them, and heard stories from hundreds of others while on the road. And, there was never a moment where we thought our students might embarrass us or give Westminster a bad reputation. They made us proud. They asked challenging questions and even had the opportunity to ask workers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge what they thought about the armed occupation that took place there.”

Brent: “And Jeff wanted to build a boat.”

Jeff: “That’s true. There is a school of wooden boatbuilding at Port Townsend, an old Victorian town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. We spent three days hand building a 12-foot wooden skiff that we named the Coyote. We had all taken to calling ourselves coyotes throughout the trip. It floated like a dream.”

What did students gain from this experience and what’s next?

Brent: “This group of students built a community that I hope will last a lifetime. We all needed to be intentional in our values and in our responses to conflict. It was a nonstop avenue for learning. There were no class periods. These students found that the energy required to build a community is extremely challenging and even more rewarding.”

Jeff: “Our students had the opportunity to hear from people working day-in and day-out to address complex environmental, economic, and social justice issues. They saw firsthand how bad things have become in some of these areas, looking at people our age and asking ‘What have you done to us?’ But they also found inspiration in those they spoke with. Many students left the expedition with the desire to dig their heels in and hopefully work for and alongside tribes, environmental organizations, nonprofits, government organizations, and others.”

Brent: “The students had dance parties in the snow, trekked countless trails, interacted with wildlife, and ultimately became a tight-knit cohort. We can’t wait to do this again in 2020—and we can’t wait to see how different and unique it will be then.”

After a couple hours I left this interview with two questions remaining: Why wasn’t this around when I was a student? And, how can we make programs like this the future of Westminster College?



About the Westminster Review

The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.