Crackling coals projected small tufts of ash and smoke into the atmosphere. Ten people hunched on logs, the bare ground, and rocks around a small open flame, reminiscent of the practice of ancient peoples. In this act, we weren’t so different from many peoples of the past: we traveled under our own power across a landscape, learning, growing, and pushing ourselves mentally and physically through challenges as a group and as individuals. Perhaps the only difference was our goal: we had just completed a 273-mile trek across the state of Vermont, thru-hiking the oldest long-distance footpath in the US, the Long Trail.

I have discovered that nature—this place—is not something that I merely walk through or go out to, but rather, something that I hold inside of myself. Whenever I am back in the city, I will think of that,” announced one of the students around the fire, a time set aside for reflection.

Moments before, I had asked them, “When you look back at this journey—the mountains, the miles, the memories—what is it that you see and feel?”

With this one question, I wanted to evoke in them a sense of accomplishment, a sense of reflection, and give them a moment to think about the 37-day experience they were just now completing. It was my hope that, in the words of Kurt Hahn, they had discovered “more within themselves” than they once knew. And it was our task to reveal this to them.

Moments like these demonstrate the power of experience—more specifically of experiential learning. John Dewey, famous educator and philosopher, noted this early in the twentieth century as a progressive educational leader. Because of philosophers and leaders such as Hahn and Dewey, I am drawn to creating experiences like the one this summer. Experiences, particularly those outside and involving small groups of people, have a way of presenting concrete, difficult, and powerful growing opportunities. The Long Trail Questers, the group that I led across the Long Trail this summer, dove into a thirty-seven day expedition, moving nine to ten miles every day for thirty-seven days with six to seven other people. They cooked all of their own food, pitched their own shelters, and found ways to learn and grow and communicate as a small community while all striving for the same goal: completing a thru-hike. By engaging directly with the natural world, containing their interactions to a small group and other members on the trail, and by practicing basic day-to-day skills, these students engaged in deep, personal learning that is only possible through direct experience.

Because of the depth and intensity of such experiences, I sought out this endeavor as an independent study for myself this summer. Not only did I see areas of growth for the members on the trip (not to mention the pride of getting to lead such a trip), but I saw a challenge for myself as well: to grow both as an educator and a leader. As such, I planned all of the logistics for the trip, including the menu and the route. I developed and planned curriculum in the Expeditionary Learning style and used the Results Based Planning Template. And I had the opportunity to work with an amazing co-worker on shaping an enormous experience for seven young people. I even had the opportunity to set out on a six-day seventy-five-mile journey on the trail by myself before embarking with the group, which proved invaluable when planning.

All of the hard work that went into my independent study paid off when we finally set foot in Canada thirty-seven days and 273 miles later. As I reflected on the experience, I knew that I gained much and found answers to questions that I was seeking. No doubt, the experience gave me a new perspective just as it had for the students.

Sterling College offers a myriad of opportunities for this kind of growth, and I am glad that I took advantage of these offerings and independence. As a student, I clung to the lyrical phrases of Pavel Cenkl, cherished one-on-one discussions about education with John Zaber, lived sustainability with Adrian Owens and Allison Van Akkeren, and discovered a passion for social justice with Anne Morse. In its progressive educational model, Sterling does much of what my trip this summer did: it allows you to dive deep into a small community, work every day with others, discover passions and interests, and work on becoming your best self through a college experience.

Through the power of this combined experience as a student at Sterling and as a trip leader developing my own quests, I have discovered much about the challenges and rewards of experiential education. Because of this, I will continually strive to create and enjoy meaningful educational experiences for myself and others. Through the power of experience, we can discover more within ourselves than we once knew and perhaps even answer questions we did not even think to ask.

Written by Ethan Smith.


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