Last October, a friend of a friend came up to me and said “Hey, you like camping right?!”The answer, yes, was followed by her shoving paperwork in my hand and telling me that I absolutely had to check out this program she did that past summer, called the Wild Rockies Field Institute. I looked at the types of courses and quickly dismissed the idea because these were all environmental science based courses and I had no background in this field; plus I am an Art History and Fine Arts major. There was nowhere to fit these in my schedule I thought and I would be so far behind everyone else. I ran into my friend Emily again and told her thanks but no thanks and explained why. That was when I found out she is an education major with about as much background in environmental science as me. Hearing that convinced me to apply to the program I am currently in, Wild Rockies: Conservation Across Boundaries.
I applied, thinking I could never get in, but was excited nonetheless. When I got accepted, I cried because I was so happy, but also pretty nervous. How would I handle the work, subjects I knew next to nothing about? Would I have anything in common with the other people? I had never been backpacking before and now I am going to do it for six weeks?! The fear subsided as I realized that no matter how nervous I got, the excitement always outweighed the nervousness. So, I canceled my plans to study art in Florence for the summer and chose to go to Montana to study conservation. I made it work with my class needs and am even going to be graduating early thanks to these credits.
Right now, I am handwriting a draft of this post in my journal, in a field called Pretty Prairie, staring at some mountains. I have spent the last eight or so days hiking, reading, writing, having class discussions ad setting up camp. It is a lot to do and often feels like there is not enough time in the day. But I have already learned so much about backpacking, conservation and who I am and what I am capable of. Living and learning out in the backcountry has been incredibly difficult and rewarding at the same time. I have never experienced anything like this and never would have if I had not been brave enough to take a chance on something which scared me. Nontraditional schooling is a great, guided way to get out of your comfort zone and experience different ways of learning.
Stepping away from the known (art) and into the unknown (environmental studies) was a great idea for me. We get very caught up in the idea of picking one path of study and not branching out. I have had an interest in the outdoors, but always thought of myself as a painter and why did I think could change that? These labels we put on ourselves keep us from experiencing so much more of the world and meeting new people. I am only about a week and a half into my WRFI program and I can already tell that taking the steps to break out of the box I had put myself in is the best decision I have ever made. This course is teaching me so much about the world around me and about myself.
I am writing this in the hopes that someone like me, who might not have any idea what “riparian” or “biotic and abiotic” means, will understand that should not be a deterrent to doing the things you wish to. Yes, I am far behind the other students here when it comes to knowledge of plants and animals, but it is nothing for me to be ashamed of. I am here now to learn this information which they might have already come across in their studies. If you wish to pursue something like this, which scares you but mostly excites you then do it without hesitation. Come with an open mind, willingness to learn and be completely unafraid to ask questions. If you have never taken a class in this field before, you cannot expect yourself to have the same knowledge as your peers. Instead of being ashamed that you do not know, ASK! It will make your experience that much better. Sometimes it takes me a bit longer to read a scientific paper than it might when I am handed a thorough discussion of a particular painting. I know I am repeating myself, but ask questions about what you do not know. And use your background to your advantage when you can. Because of the information I have been exposed to in my art classes, I might have a different way of thinking about a reading, which is just as valuable as that of the others.
I jumped into this experience unsure of what to expect and have already been rewarded with more than I can explain. I have had the help of amazing instructors who have taught me so much in a short amount of time, about backcountry life, leadership qualities and being a positive person, among other things. Physically, I will be leaving this trip with a lot more bruises and scratches than I came with, but I will also be taking an incredible repertoire of knowledge and a deeper insight into myself than I have ever had the opportunity to realize. Being brave can be difficult but it is necessary in order to leave our comfort zone and really experience this life we have been given. I hope that everyone looks around and finds something that seems a little out of reach, whether it is a Wild Rockies Field Institute course or something else. I can almost guarantee you will come out all the better for having tried.