What's Happening in the Wilderness Program
Todd Wright's excitement threshold is pretty high. An Army combat veteran of the first Gulf War, this energetic man who's led the Saint Michael's Wilderness Program for 15-plus years spends his life sea-kayaking, whitewater boating, skiing, hiking or rock and ice-climbing with students half his age. Yet he sounds excited about the early weeks of the new academic year at Saint Mike's. Here's why:
- The Wilderness Program's wild and enduring popularity, now under a smooth-running and empowering student-coordinator model. Also, thanks to a successful pilot trial this year, he anticipates the full-blown launch of a new mountain-bike program next year.
- His exciting new duties in the Student Life office that promise to widen the scope and influence of his unique energy and perspective.
- His role developing meaningful campus activities for students who are veterans or in the military since he shares their background and cares deeply about their issues.
"In the Wilderness Program we're already sold out on trips through Thanksgiving break," Wright said on October 10. "Usually we sell out, but this year it happened the fourth week of school. It's unusual to be literally booked for an entire semester so early, which is fantastic." A possible reason, he speculates, is a thriving new structure for the Wilderness Program that delegates responsibility to student coordinators - one each for climbing, paddle sports, ski/ski-pass/rides, media & alumni relationships, and outfitters (those responsible for equipment acquisition, maintenance and distribution.) "They're doing a pretty impressive job," Wright says of all the coordinators. Their weekly staff meetings to report in and address needs have been admirably business-like, he says, honing the sort of leader skills that St. Mike's specializes in developing.
He estimates 400 student "user-days" of Wilderness programming in the eight to nine weekends it's been offered fall semester, with those users served by 18 student instructors, plus Wright, his assistant Eben Widlund, and "a couple contracted professionals" - though the need for them is down as more students get trained and certified. Activities demanding technical training are popular, he says, but also limit program growth since the number of qualified instructors determines how many can enroll. Wright says a treat for him this year has been watching political science professor Trish Siplon become certified as a top-rope rock-climbing instructor.
"I get to go out on the weekends with awesome kids all the time who are all unique," says Wright, who initially launched the student coordinator model in Wilderness from necessity as he moved this year into a trial phase as associate dean of students. It required Widlund to "back-fill" many of Wright's old tasks, so students in turn took on some of Widlund's traditional work. Wright says through Student Life, he's now able to bring insights from his longtime intense bonds with students, essentially as peers in life or death scenarios, into wider programming than just Wilderness. He described what St. Mike's experiential learning looks like from that view:
"I'll have conversations on a two-hour drive to the Connecticut River for a whitewater program, or maybe I'll shut up and listen, and they're talking about everything from music to the Affordable Health Care Act and everything in between. It's a unique lens for me to see how that age views issues, what information they are getting, how they process it and share it with their peers." He says a day like that might also mean "you're waking at 7 to meet at 7:30, loading boats for half an hour, driving two hours, boating for five, driving two hours back, unloading equipment for half an hour and hopefully getting to dinner in time - so it's a big commitment for students with social and academic lives. But since they're so engaged in campus, they're typically very engaged in the larger world."
After this year's success with a pilot program for mountain biking, Wright and student leaders are exploring and expecting to buy a fleet of high-end mountain bikes next year that students can rent for use either on campus-adjacent nature trails, at Catamount in Williston, or at a higher-level trail site in the Northeast Kingdom, depending on skill level. Also in the works are a bike-repair shop in the present Wilderness office (if they can move next year down the hall to the present Eddie's as hoped), and a service to rent regular street-cruisers for a day or weekend to students, faculty and staff.
As a veteran, Wright has been point of contact in recent years for veteran services on campus, and his efforts have ramped up now that 13 veterans are in the student body along with about 20 with military connections of other varieties such as deferred enlistments or National/Air Guard. He says seven of those veterans served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they've formed a national chapter of Student Veterans of America. They meet bi-weekly and have a goal of "educating traditional students on what it means to send warriors to war, and the inherent responsibilities that imparts on society," Wright says. "I like that it's a dialogue that we've been inviting students to, because they want to learn about this stuff and I believe one of the healthiest things our veterans can do is educate the civilian population about their war experience."
"Everything that makes St. Mike's a magic place for the traditional student also makes it a magic place for the soldier or airman or Navy personnel," Wright says. "Everything we do well for our traditional undergraduates will benefit warriors, making that transition back to society easier."