No Borders in the Backcountry

By Jen Pontrelli

Nov 20, 2015

“What did I get myself into?!”

Bill de la Rosa Sea Kayaking in Alaska
Bill during his sea kayaking expedition. Photo by Tracy Baynes.


On June 7, 2011, Bill de la Rosa found himself farther from home than he had ever been. Standing on the banks of Prince William Sound in southern Alaska, he watched as the charter boat motored into the distance, having dropped him, 11 coursemates, three instructors and a bevy of supplies on the shore.

As the boat moved across the glassy surface of the water, any semblance of the life that 17-year-old Bill knew drifted further away. A life that included the disparate elements of growing up Mexican American in Tucson, Arizona. A life that was enriched by familial love, threatened by poverty, fractured by immigration policy and ultimately emboldened by hard work and determination.

Approximately two years before Bill found himself questioning his sanity in the middle of the Alaska wilderness, he was one of the top students at Pueblo Magnet High School in Tucson. He was the second oldest of the four de la Rosa children, who ranged in ages from 4 to 17 at the time. In October 2009, his family was fractured when Gloria, Bill’s mother, traveled to Mexico and was denied her green card permit and subjected to a decade-long ban from the United States, a country where her children and elderly husband were citizens.

The family’s saga for reunification has been beautifully documented by Arizona Public Media, but at the moment when he learned his mother would not be able to enter the U.S. to raise her children, Bill decided to start writing his own story. His ambitions grew from achieving good grades and high accolades to pursuing a quality education and effecting human rights reform by becoming a leader.

I knew that if I did this I would walk out a better leader, a better person.

These ambitions resonated within Bill when Dr. Tracy Baynes came to Pueblo Magnet High School to introduce the Student Expedition Program, or STEP. The program is aimed at helping low-income youth in Arizona’s public schools become successful college candidates, and later graduates.

Baynes, who is a NOLS instructor and a passionate advocate for education for at-risk youth, partnered with NOLS Professional Training (now NOLS Custom Education) for one of the program’s strongest and most transformative components, the Student Expedition Program, a scholarship-funded 3-week sea kayaking expedition in Alaska.

“I knew that if I did this I would walk out a better leader, a better person,” said Bill of his initial attraction to the course.

As Bill’s interest turned into action, he embarked on months of preparation. There was the physical preparation that involved consulting with Baynes on gear, then meeting his fellow coursemates, many of whom came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, on a climbing retreat.

And then there was the emotional preparation, which involved leaving his younger siblings and elderly father during a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Despite his reservations and the anxiety he felt for leaving his family during a difficult time, Bill received the most support for participating in this adventure from his mother in Mexico.

“She told me to go for it, that it was the beginning of something,” he said. “Someone wanted to make an investment in me and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity she did not want me to pass up.” 

Fishing in Prince William Sound Fishing in Prince William Sound. Photo by Kyle Duba.


And with that vote of confidence, Bill soon found himself on the shores of Prince William Sound, silently cursing himself.

“There was so much uncertainty,” he said of his first few hours on the course. “It was so different from anything I’d ever known. I mean there is a time when there is almost 24-hour daylight in Alaska, so when it was midnight and the sun was just starting to set I was questioning a lot of things.”

As with most NOLS students, that uncertainty soon turned into a strong affinity for the environment in which they were immersed.

“Most of these kids have never even been camping,” says Dr. Baynes, who has taught multiple NOLS STEP courses. “So the first week they’re usually pretty miserable, we often get a lot of rain which is disheartening to a kid from the desert. But in the second week they become more comfortable and then the third week they just thrive. The transformation is huge.”

Over the next few weeks, Bill found himself doing just that. Days were spent paddling in Prince William Sound, three to five miles at first but eventually as many as 23 miles, and enjoying the wild mysticism of Alaska. Nights were spent cooking over the Whisperlite camp stove and learning about his peers and instructors.

“I really admired the backgrounds of the other students and appreciated what they had to say. Everyone had very unique perspectives,” he said. “And my instructors were all amazing and super passionate. They taught us that there are no limits to our potential.”

It was a humbling experience that gave me a greater global responsibility.

For a group of kids from low-income areas of Tucson, Arizona, these lessons carried more weight than perhaps anything they had ever learned in a classroom setting. According to research provided by STEP, the high schools in which the program predominantly works have a median college completion rate of 8 percent, while half of Arizona’s public high schools have college completion rates of 5 percent or less. With a bar set statistically so low, it is truly astonishing to learn that many STEP students go on to excel in highly respected institutions such as Columbia, Duke and Georgetown Universities.

A little over a year after the completion of his NOLS STEP course in Alaska, Bill enrolled in Bowdoin College in Maine, where he is currently a senior. As a Truman scholar, a Gates Millennium scholar and a Michael and Susan Dell scholar, Bill has excelled at Bowdoin as a student and an advocate for human rights, something that his NOLS STEP expedition helped foster.

“It was a humbling experience that gave me a greater global responsibility,” he said of the expedition. “Out there it’s just you and the environment: the mountains, the ocean. It makes you realize that there are more important things in this world that we should keep in mind as human beings.”

Always close to Bill’s mind and heart is keeping his family intact. Shortly after Bill’s course returned to the frontcountry, he learned that his elderly father, Arsenio, had suffered a debilitating stroke. In the first few days of Arsenio’s recuperation, Gloria was granted a humanitarian pass to travel to Arizona to care for him and her young children, but eventually had to resume her exile in Mexico. At the time of publication, Gloria has four years until she can be reunited with her children and husband in the United States.

Despite the personal injustices he has endured, there is not a hint of bitterness in Bill’s voice as he speaks about his past and his future. Although he now lives thousands of miles apart from his father and siblings, and even farther from his mother, he checks in regularly and provides guidance when and where he can. Recently, his younger sister Naomi has begun the application process for her own STEP expedition, something that Bill is eager for her to experience.

When pried for advice for Naomi, Bill’s trademark modesty shines through: “I would tell her to take it all in, absorb everything in this unique experience. It is a privilege to be complaining about paddling miles across the Prince William Sound and to be camping in the middle of nowhere in Alaska. It will change you.”

For many a student, a NOLS course is about transformation, but for students like Bill de la Rosa the stakes are higher and the sacrifices deeper. Like the border that separates the de la Rosa children from their mother, there are barriers that NOLS and STEP help students to overcome, but ultimately the capability to lead and the will to succeed come from within. These strengths come from a life of experiences that most would deem unfathomable and from a family whose unconditional love and perseverance will see it through a decade of separation.

It is through the brilliant partnership with Tracy Baynes and STEP, the courage of Bill and his family, and the experiences of many more students who have sacrificed greatly to embark on expeditions with us, that NOLS is the one transforming into a stronger community for all.

2008 STEP Expedition Celebrating community. Photo by Tracy Baynes.


Written By

Jen Pontrelli

Jen Pontrelli is the sales manager for NOLS Custom Education.

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