In the forests of Western North Carolina, Sandy Kohn often watches his students choose the wrong path when they come to a fork in the trail.
He says nothing and usually walks behind them for the mile or two it takes to figure out they’ve gone the wrong way.
Kohn, director of UNC Charlotte’s Venture program, which provides opportunities for outdoor experiential learning, said it’s better that way.
“We’re not spoon-feeding them,” he said. “We want them to learn from making their own decisions and seeing where that leads them.”
The experience usually ends up taking participants farther than just out of the woods. Most students come out with a boosted confidence that can lead them well in life, too.
The Venture program began at the university in 1971, shortly after the chancellor asked 15 students, staff and faculty members to take part in a two-week Outward Bound experience in the Great Smokies. During those 14 days, they learned backpacking, compass and map reading, first aid, rock climbing, and leadership skills.
The success of that pilot trip led the university to begin the Venture program. Today, students and community members can experience almost every type of outdoor recreational activity, from sea kayaking to rock climbing, backpacking to spelunking.
Venture also offers high and low rope challenge courses popular with corporations and youth organizations for team-building exercises.
Last year 13,000 people took part in at least one activity through the Venture program.
The benefits can be life changing. Experiential learning – learning through participating in an activity and then reflecting on it – builds confidence and know-how in a different way from how it’s acquired in a classroom setting.
“We’re using the outdoors to help people realize they could do more than maybe they thought they could,” said Kohn.
Students who sign up for a backpacking trip carry what they need in their own packs, which can weigh up to 40 pounds. They set up camp, cook and learn how to survive deep in the wilderness.
“The challenges are what allow people to grow tremendously, from really testing themselves in new ways,” said Kohn. “Then talking about what they learned from it is really an essential part of the whole learning.”
The biggest transformation comes from the student leaders in the Venture program, said Kohn.
“In our student leaders we see a tremendous change, in terms of their skills, their confidence, their leadership abilities,” Kohn said.
Vince Saelzler, 23, a trip leader who has been involved in the Venture program for two years, agrees.
“It’s such a sense of accomplishment,” said Saelzler. “I managed to make shelter today, or I managed to make food today.”
He said the experience of leading others has taught him not to panic and to always be prepared for anything, like unexpected allergy flare-ups.
“When someone’s throat starts swelling shut and you don’t have any antihistamine around, it can be a real problem,” he said.
Marion McClure, assistant director for Venture trips, said she watches new student leaders quickly transform from their past roles as followers.
“You’re out on the lake or in the woods, it can be a heavy sense or responsibility,” she said.