Why I Left School for a NOLS Semester

Posted by: Claire Burgeson on 10/15/18 9:50 AM

Two sailboats at sunset in Baja California
Photo by Claire Burgeson

The second week of my sophomore year of college, I walked into my 9:00 a.m. history class and asked myself, “What am I still doing here?”

I was doing what I'd always done: what was expected of me. I had graduated high school, chosen a college, and just chosen a major—journalism. I got good grades, had friends—on paper, I was a list of checked boxes.

At the same time, I felt my energy and creativity drain through the holes that the classroom grind had worn through me.

On top of feeling the “sophomore slump,” I separated my shoulder playing ultimate frisbee, which stopped me from doing a lot of the things I loved. I couldn’t play frisbee, I couldn’t bike, and I wasn’t sleeping well because of the pain. After months of feeling unmoored and upset, I decided I was tired of feeling down, and tried to think of ways to fix my situation.

The first thing I thought of to make me happier was a change of scenery. When I applied for college, I had looked at schools that had expansive study abroad programs because I knew I wanted to learn in a different setting outside the U.S. I dove deep into the study programs offered at my school and finally realized that, while switching scenery, studying abroad wasn’t going to fill those holes I’d found.

What I needed—what I was craving—was time outside of the classroom. I was bored in my classes and did the bare minimum to maintain a reasonable GPA, learning things for tests and faking retention. In a very typical American sense I was “successful.” But I didn’t feel successful, I felt lost. And to find myself again, I wanted to be challenged every day. I wanted to learn new ways of thriving outside and remember how to love learning again. I wanted to fall in love with a new place and a different me, and it didn’t feel like a typical study abroad semester was going to do that.

Cactus with clouds and mountains in the background
Photo by Claire Burgeson
 

I thought back to the beginning of the summer, when I had led a canoe trip for a camp in Minnesota with a woman who'd just finished a Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Semester with NOLS. She’d learned how to climb and gotten her Wilderness EMT and it sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, all while getting school credit. A lot of friends from this camp had done NOLS semesters, most of them abroad, and it sounded like the perfect combination of challenge, cultural immersion, and exploring a new wilderness.

I threw myself into the process of figuring out how to make a NOLS course abroad work—specifically, the Semester in Baja—within my four-year graduation plan. This was going to be my new beginning, my wake-up call.

The process itself took a lot of planning—some hoops were harder to jump through than others. My school’s study abroad office had no idea what to do with me and sent me elsewhere. The honors college I was part of had never heard of NOLS. My journalism school advisor didn’t know of anyone who had left as a junior to do this kind of thing. The registrar wondered about why I wanted to transfer “skills practicum” credits, just one type of academic credit available on a NOLS course, as a journalism major.

Pelican perched on top of a sea kayakPhoto by Claire Burgeson
 

Even my friends were confused about why I would want to leave for a whole semester and not be able to talk to anyone except the people I was “out there” with. A lot of people thought I was going on vacation to Mexico for three months. When I tried to explain I wouldn’t be drinking pina coladas on the beach, they dismissed me and zipped up their jackets to brave the winter.

By the time I pitched the idea to my parents when I was home for the holiday break, I had figured everything out. The time it had taken, which most of the other students on my course didn’t experience, had paid off. I knew exactly how the credits would transfer, I knew what classes I’d have to take and when, I had the pricing figured out: I had everything planned. I even made a Powerpoint with answers to all the questions I thought my parents would have. They were impressed by my tenacity, and said they’d think about it.

Group on the shore preparing to sea kayak
Photo by Kate Gautier
 

My heart beat slightly faster for weeks, until my dad and I were eating dinner one night. Out of the blue, he asked, “So, have you thought more about the NOLS thing?”

I was taken aback. Of course I had.

“Yeah, I want to do it. Like really really want to do it,” I replied eagerly.

“Oh, did we not talk to you? Your mom and I are both into it.”

I signed up for the Semester in Baja the next day.

Study abroad on a NOLS Semester

Claire is the PR and marketing intern at NOLS. She enjoys moonshadows and playing in/on/around water.