“Gap” year leads aspiring engineer to the Outdoor Leadership Program
Sarah Grinnell always loved math, science and logic classes when she was in middle school and high school, so the decision to enroll in one of the Five Colleges’ schools of engineering was an easy one.
However, before beginning college, she decided to take a “gap year” to first engage in activities that were guided by the other passion that had guided her since childhood: outdoor adventure. Sarah had attended Morse Hill Outdoor Education Camp in Shutesbury since she was 8 years old, and worked there as a Counselor in Training in high school. The outdoor environment provided the best backdrop for her enduring interest in an active lifestyle that explores and connects with the natural world.
After a year that included travel from Germany to Guatemala, she returned to her Northampton home and began her studies towards a baccalaureate degree in engineering at Smith College. However, she came to realize during her freshman year that the theory of that work was more exciting to her than the practice and she decided to take some time off the following year to reflect on and reassess her career goals.
It was this reflection that clarified for Sarah what was obviously the best fit: the Greenfield Community College Outdoor Leadership Program (OLP). She immediately made the decision to enroll.
Sarah’s experience in GCC’s OLP was, in her words, “amazing.” She recalls the program fondly, saying “the instructors were top quality and great role models. The Program Director, Austin Paulson, created a community of learners who helped each other out and held each other up.”
She shared a story about an OLP winter camping trip in upstate New York with 3 feet of snow on the ground and sub-zero temperatures. On the 5th night of this trip, with the thermometer reading -20 ̊, Sarah forget to put her wet boots under her sleeping pad. When she was unable to put her feet into the frozen objects the next morning she, in her words, “freaked out” and felt unable to cope with the moment. Her friend and classmate quickly jumped in, heated the boots with a hot water bottle until they were malleable and generally talked Sarah through the crisis. “That’s just one example of how we were all there for each every day,” she said.
When asked to describe Sarah’s time as a GCC OLP student, Director Austin Paulson quickly responded, “Sarah is a great example of a student who excelled in traditional academic environments, but wanted a non-traditional, experiential approach to cement her technical skills. She was able to match her usual rational demeanor gained as a former engineering student with the hands on, vocational training in the OLP program.” He noted that the result was a student who could balance logical decision-making with a solid tool box of outdoor leadership approaches to fit the situation.
After completing GCC’s Outdoor Leadership Program in May 2015, Sarah initially headed to possible work in Seward, Alaska, but life got in the way along the way and she found herself in the opposite climate of San Diego, California instead. After starting work as a camp counselor over the summer, she applied for and was accepted at her current position as an instructor with the San Gorgonio Outdoor Science School in the San Bernadino Mountains of Southern California. Each week, Sarah leads a group of 6th graders from the Anaheim Public School District to take classes, academically and experientially, in ecology and the environmental sciences.
“These kids have never been to the mountains, never seen snow and likely have never been away from their urban environments, so it is a tremendous learning experience for them from many perspectives,” she observed. “This is a very rewarding job that combines my love of science and outdoor leadership in a way that opens doors to a world they might otherwise never see.”
Sarah is looking forward to returning east for a summer job as a climbing specialist at a multi-expedition camp in the Adirondack Mountains.