Walking the talk in muddy boots: GCC’s Outdoor Leadership Program

January 23, 2009

When Beth Sayers ‘01 says she “stands on strong shoulders” and has “muddy boots,” she’s not talking about physically climbing on an outdoor challenge course or the cleanliness of her gear. As a new fulltime faculty member in GCC’s Outdoor Leadership Program (OLP), Beth means that she reaps the benefits of working in an almost 30-year-old nationally recognized program whose former faculty are well-known leaders in outdoor education.

The strong shoulders she’s standing on are those of Laurie Gullion, her mentor and former coordinator of the OLP, as well as Kate Douglas and many other OLP faculty who took Larry Buell’s initial vision for a competency-based program and turned it into one of the premier outdoor leadership training programs in the U.S. The OLP’s status in the outdoor education field is affirmed by its accreditation by the Association for Experiential Education. The OLP meets and exceeds AEE’s standards. Beth works with Austin Paulson, current coordinator of the OLP, and a number of part-time specialist faculty.

Beth’s metaphorical “muddy boots” come from many years working and playing in the outdoors. Beth has worked around the country as a sea kayak guide, a leader in therapeutic adventure programs serving at-risk youth and youth with type-1 diabetes, a nordic and alpine ski patroller, a challenge course trainer, and the coordinator of a university outdoor education center. When not working with students, she’s often in the wilderness on her own canoe, kayak, or high altitude mountaineering expedition. Beth’s “muddy boots” are backed up by academic knowledge. Along with an Outdoor Leadership Certificate from GCC, Beth has a bachelor’s degree from UMass-Amherst and a master’s degree in Outdoor Education Administration from Georgia College and State University.

OLP students come from New England and across the U.S. There is no such thing as a “typical” OLP student – some are recent high school graduates looking for a hands-on educational experience, some have college degrees and are in the midst of a career change. They come for many reasons, with plans to work in a range of recreational and educational settings or create their own outdoor businesses. What they share is a passion for learning by doing and dedication to fully participating in an intensive, intimate nine-month experience. Together, they spend at least 120 days out in the field. Those who successfully complete the program receive an Outdoor Leadership Certificate from GCC and other nationally recognized certifications in land, water, and challenge course programming.

Increasingly, applicants to the OLP have academic degrees in related fields but can’t find jobs because they lack field experience, the “muddy boots” necessary to be employable. They know employers seek out OLP graduates and that all who successfully complete the OLP’s rigorous program get jobs.

There’s more to the OLP than developing technical skills in outdoor activities. Beth said, “Our technical skills training is top notch, but does not stand alone. At OLP, we apply a holistic approach to outdoor education, understanding that to be a successful leader in today’s world, navigating group dynamics is paramount. We have a diverse group of students each year and the variety of experiences each brings provides the rich fabric of community where we learn and teach together.” She continued, “We are well-rounded in building bridges – people to people, and people to environment. As the GCC vision and mission state, we ‘understand our roles and responsibilities. .. in the global community, to create a better world for all’ and ‘. . .we are passionate about teaching and learning together!’”

With “muddy boots,” Beth, Austin, and the OLP students are walking the talk of GCC’s vision and mission.