The National Outdoor Leadership School is dedicated to teaching students of all ages backcountry skills in order to foster conservation, engagement, and build the next generation of outdoor-inspired leaders. We’ve partnered with NOLS to bring you stories of gourmet whisper-lite chefs, hard-won Chaco tans, and wilderness taught wisdom.
Samantha Cook began as a NOLS student in Fall of 2013 studying in the Baja California Peninsula. Now she works as an intern in NOLS’ Alumni Department. Keep scrolling to read about Samantha’s incredible adventure and growth experience during her NOLS semester in Baja.
My senior year in high school I heard about NOLS, and I couldn’t believe it. Getting college credit to go to “school” outdoors and have the adventure of a lifetime? I was in. I was beyond ready to get away from my hometown, wasn’t quite ready to start college, and a gap semester was the perfect opportunity.
The soft skills I learned in my NOLS Semester in Baja could never be taught in a classroom. Now I’m a rising senior at Western Carolina University, and I attribute the success of my college experiences and summer jobs I’ve had to the life skills and values I was taught at NOLS.
Each day of our semester, one or two students were assigned as “Leader of the Day,” (LOD) where we were in charge of navigation and were the go-to people for that day’s activities. At first, being LOD was a bit nerve-wracking, which reminds me of when when I co-led a day of sea kayaking. Everything was going well until we rounded a point, where the wind started to pick up. We began to notice white caps all around us, and decided to take a break to make a quick decision on what we were going to do the rest of the day.
Learning to make challenging decisions:
My co-leader and I disagreed on whether to continue kayaking or to head to shore and we were not making progress. At that point taking a vote wasn’t helpful, and we needed to make a direct decision. In the end, we decided on going to shore. I remember getting feedback on my poor communication skills—I’m a communication major now, fancy that. But learning to make decisions and communicate them on my NOLS course tested me; making a decision on the spot did not come easy for me.
There is a time and place for certain types of decisions, and recognizing your peers and environment is the most important step to making the right decision for the group as a whole. I eventually looked forward to being LOD, and realized all I needed was to have confidence in myself, and others would have confidence in my decisions.
Practicing giving and receiving feedback:
Living with the same group of students 24/7 for three months straight teaches you people skills that we often ignore in the real world. Confronting people about issues became second nature and didn’t seem so intimidating. Our group gathered around to debrief the day I was “co-LOD” for sea kayaking, like we did every day after travel. I was not looking forward to the feedback, since it was my decision to go to shore and I knew some of my peers were not happy about it. But to my surprise, I received compliments on the decision, and people seemed to think it was wise to stay back, since going on would have been a long stretch with exposure and nowhere to stop until we reached the destination.
Our instructors coached us on giving people feedback in a constructive manner which seemed repetitive, but I realize now how important it is to know how to give appropriate, timely feedback in college and the workplace.
Developing tolerance for adversity and uncertainty:
I can think of countless instances on my NOLS course where our tolerance for adversity and uncertainty was tested. Deciding to do a surf landing on the day I was LOD wasn’t a big deal, because by then we knew we had to be prepared for and accepting of the fact that we might not make it to our destination, depending on weather and other circumstances.
On my gap semester, we all became aware that nothing in the wilderness goes as planned. Learning to take everything as it came was a challenge, but eventually became the norm. Every trip into the wild, as in life, is bound to have imperfections that are out of our control.
NOLS taught me to never give up, because if you don’t give up, success is inevitable.
I used to kind of commit to things, but not fully. After three months of backpacking, sea kayaking, and sailing, I realized my NOLS group was dependent on each and every person to do their job or put in their bit of effort every day, and if one person didn’t do their part, the whole group suffered. It relates directly to being on a team, studying in college even when the exam isn’t until the end of the semester, and helping out people in general without being asked.
I have made an effort to apply the skills my NOLS instructors told me to work on; because hearing it from them, the most knowledgeable people I had ever met and looked up to, was more real to me than hearing it from a professor.
After my NOLS course, I believed I could do anything and set out to take on experiences I would never have considered before. In college, I have built strong relationships with my professors, ran cross country and track for a year, and now lead trips at our outdoor center, Base Camp Cullowhee, where we strive to encourage anyone and everyone to get outside. That one, short semester taught me skills that my three years at Western Carolina University couldn’t and fueled a passion that I didn’t know I had before.
Inspired by Samantha’s story? Check out NOLS to learn more about more amazing learning opportunities!