Lessons for Life: Community School’s Outdoor Leadership Academy

I learned about Community School’s Outdoor Leadership Academy (OLA) this past summer and was struck by the idea that OLA was a set of high school experiences that its graduates could actively use and carry into adulthood — high school students working to become effective, responsible outdoor leaders. It is, to my mind, they type of program that you find only in a boarding school and, more specifically, a boarding school with an emphasis on outdoor experiences.

Community School’s OLA brings and teaches practical, adult style, responsibility to students.

Community’s program description:

The Outdoor Leadership Academy (OLA) was created four years ago to take our exceptional outdoor program to the next level. It was designed for Upper School students who want to develop the skills, experience, and certifications needed to lead trips, and who wish to hone leadership skills transferable to any setting – from the backcountry to the boardroom.

Community School: OLA

Community School: OLA

I got in touch with Community, and they put me in contact with three OLA graduates who were kind enough to talk to me on the phone or via e-mail:

Jack Swanson (JS)
Autumn Fluetsch (AF)
Annika Landis (AL)

I edited our conversations for clarity.

How are you using your OLA background in the world? How do you carry it in your adult life?  How do you continue to use lessons learned in the OLA?

AF: My time in the OLA taught me a lot, but one of the major life-lessons that stuck with me is to reach out and lean into new opportunities.  Before my time in the OLA, I had the tendency to let my fear of failure prevent me from trying new things.  However, the OLA taught me to push past that fear and to instead take the initiative and make use of opportunities.

Backcountry skiing had always been something I had dreamed of trying.  The OLA provided me with opportunities to try it out, and I took full advantage of them: I went skiing with the middle school backcountry club, went on OLA yurt trips, and went out for the afternoon ski trips with other OLA students and staff.

I continue practicing this idea of reaching out and leaning into new opportunities, and it has proved to be extremely helpful during my first few months of college.

In addition to teaching OLA students to reach for new opportunities, the amount of outdoor adventure and education opportunities that the OLA provided needs to be noted.  From the previously mentioned multi-day yurt trips, to weekend rock climbing trips, to afternoons kayaking on the river, to safety education courses like WFA, WFR, and CPR the OLA calendar was always full.

JS: I spend as much time in outdoors as I can.

Beyond obviously being outdoors, what does OLA teach that students cannot get in the classroom?

AF: One of the main aspects of the OLA that stands out to me is the application of everything we learned.  Between the countless trips that every student at Community School goes on (I think it is 14!?) and the additional trips that OLA members are required and encouraged to embark on, each OLA member has more than enough opportunities to apply their leadership knowledge to real life settings.

Many students can only learn so much by sitting in a classroom.  Real-world application is necessary to fully understand a lesson.

AL: In high school and similarly in college, it is hard to balance all of the moving pieces, especially when those pieces are all things you value. To manage being a member of the OLA with academics and athletics, it is important to know how to manage your time. The OLA constitutes a commitment, and I know that for me, being a Nordic skier, it was hard to be committed 100% of the time.

However, the good news is that a key component of being an outdoor leader is being able to manage your time well and therefore, it is a positive reinforcement of your commitment to the program.

JS: The Capstone Project- the responsibility of planning a five-day kayaking trip was incredibly important.

I planned a five-day trip on the river with all the details- meals, logistics, packing, the buy list.

You get checked [by faculty leaders]. But, you’re on your own leading planning a five day trip with everything the trip needs to be self-sufficient.

You are the backstop.

I also became more comfortable leading a group and working with other leaders. I’m able to see that one leader may be more comfortable talking to a group while another may be more comfortable leading by action or example.

If you tell someone one thing about your OLA experience, what is it?

AF: I always try to emphasize the main lesson that frustrates OLA students at times.  It is the lesson that all OLA members were forced to learn throughout their four years: it is all on you.

Yes, each OLA student has an advisor, who along with all the OLA staff,  is always available for help.  But, ultimately, each OLA student’s success depends on whether or not we wanted it and worked for it.

OLA can be frustrating at times since the work was piled on top of all our other demands as a student.  But, it is a lesson that is so important because it is so applicable to the real world.  It was also quite liberating, and over the years, I began not to see this as a burden, but rather as an ability and responsibility to make your time in the OLA as exceptional as you liked!

AL: OLA works to foster leadership skills in students. While some of these skills can be learned in the classroom, there is nothing like attaching actual risks to leadership to help you learn what works and what doesn’t. I believe that students who learn leadership through the medium of the outdoors develop a conscientiousness and an empathy that is hard to obtain anywhere else. Students develop a deep appreciation for the environment, which I believe is one of the most important aspects of the program. People with an emotional and even spiritual connection to their environment are more likely to protect it.

Additionally, the OLA and the Outdoor Program as a whole does an incredible job of building interpersonal skills that are essential for success and happiness in many other aspects of life.

How does OLA continue shaping your adult life?

JS: OLA will play a big part in my life. I want to work as professional fishing or river guide.

Professionalism is built into the OLA curriculum. Working with a community mentor; learning to leave no trace; becoming a Wilderness first Responder (WFR); all these experiences have helped me become very comfortable leading outdoors and in the backcountry.

AL: My favorite part of the OLA was having my intrinsic love for the outdoors validated through a program that brought people who share that passion together. I was able to go on so many cool trips with amazing people who were just as psyched to be outside as I was. It changes the experience when all the member of the group can appreciate the raw beauty and untapped potential for fun that exists in the mountains, rivers, and deserts.The experiences I had through the OLA are moments that I will always cherish because they made me a more astute, more conscientious, and more generous person.

The OLA allows me to be in a place where I feel whole with people that make me happy. What more can you ask for? The OLA rocks!

My OLA experiences along with all the other outdoor experiences with my family and friends have shaped me as a person. Most of the ways that my OLA background influences my day to day life are subtle, but I know that how I approach leadership, problem-solving, and how I interact with others have all greatly benefited from the OLA.

In more direct settings (like orientation backpacking trips!), it becomes evident who knows what they are doing and who doesn’t. Any student who has graduated from the OLA will naturally rise to a leadership position in any group.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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