Westminster College Takes Academics on the Road with Semester-Long Field Experience Program
December 12, 2018
Students spend semester developing key leadership skills needed for competitive outdoor industry
Capitalizing on its close proximity to national parks, world-class outdoor recreation areas and unique geological landscapes, Westminster College recently wrapped up its first-ever Outdoor Education and Leadership Field Semester (OELFS). Over the course of the past semester, nine outdoor education and leadership (OEL) majors and minors participated in an intensive semester-long field experience throughout the American West.
During the inaugural program, students traveled throughout Utah, Idaho and Wyoming to develop skills in backpacking, rock climbing, paddling and canyoneering, as well as leadership, teaching, communication, decision-making and risk management skills. They also earned certifications in wilderness medicine, single pitch (climbing) and swift-water rescue.
"Westminster is one of the few institutions in the nation to create a degree program focused on developing outdoor leaders with extended field experience," said Kellie Gerbers, OELFS director. "The students who completed the semester have endured some real physical and emotional challenges. Through these challenges, they developed confidence and enhanced their ability to work within a group — which definitely gives them a leg up in the outdoor industry."
For junior Haley Schiek, the OEL trip was invaluable to helping her increase confidence and competency in the field.
"It's one thing to attend amazing classes on campus and talk about things like leadership, decision-making, risk management and expedition behavior, but it is another to go into the wilderness for an extended period of time and actually live those things for yourself. It's way harder — and way more fun,” said Schiek, an aspiring yoga therapist and OEL minor.
"I can see a visible difference between myself exactly one year ago when I went backpacking and canyoneering at Angel Cove, to this fall when I led the outdoor orientation backpacking trip in the Uintas," she added. "I would not have the confidence I have now to take a group out on a backpacking trip if it hadn't been for the field semester."
According to Gerber, programs like OELFS are important because they put students in situations and environments where they have to make decisions and execute actions that can't be replicated in an indoor classroom environment.
"Every day in the field is different based on group energy/ability, weather, terrain, etc.," Gerbers said. "Field experiences teach our students to be flexible and adaptable, to develop tolerance for adversity (and resilience) and to be creative decision makers and problem solvers.
For OEL major Sam Untersee, the length of time in the field was an important aspect of the program.
Anyone can go on as many personal trips as they want, but extended field time isn't so common," he said. "From daily dealings with classmates to larger physical and living challenges, field experiences bring with it a whole host of new challenges and rewards. We were literally living and thriving in the backcountry for a long period of time — something I think a lot more people should do. It brings you a lot closer to the world and the people around you and facilitates a place and mindset to learn about and work a lot on yourself as a person."
Westminster has a strong emphasis on taking advantage of its power of place and creating robust field experiences for students. In 2017, the college hosted its inaugural Westminster Expedition, where 14 students, two professors and a program coordinator hit the road in a couple of vans to explore western lands and immerse themselves in topics involving environmental cooperation and conflict, landscape and meaning, Native nations and public lands. They traveled all throughout the American West, visiting iconic sites like Yellowstone National Park and contentious places like Little Bighorn.
In summer 2018, Westminster hosted a geology field excursion where students traveled throughout the area taking advantage of the region's geologic wonders.
"Geology 360 is the capstone experience for our Westminster geology majors," said David Goldsmith, Ph.D., Westminster geology professor. "Students in the course spend six weeks traveling the west putting the skills they have learned in the classroom into practice. In our 2018 class, students created original geologic maps of the Confusion Range, explored potential ore deposits in the Mineral Mountains and reconstructed the glacial history of the Bear River Basin."
Westminster plans to host the next OEL Field Semester in the fall of 2020 for its next set of future outdoor leaders.