Business Undergrads Look to Wilderness Expeditions for Leadership Training

By Stephanie Cantu

Aug 26, 2019

Group smiles with a rainbow in the background

Dozens of candidates from undergraduate business and MBA programs across the U.S. go on wilderness expeditions with NOLS each year. Stephanie Cantu, Senior Student Program Coordinator and academic advisor for the Canfield Business Honors Program at The University of Texas, shares what she sees her students gain from these expeditions, and how they’re set up for success in the ever-changing business world.

What’s the most relevant part of the NOLS leadership curriculum for business school candidates?

Building tolerance for uncertainty. I’m a higher education professional, and one of the big failings I see in the overall system is that students today are accustomed to memorizing the “right answer” instead of learning how to problem solve and think critically as an individual.

One of the best educational strategies that NOLS instructors use is to provide us with all the tools to successfully trek through the wilderness on day 1, and then slowly decrease their direct guidance as the week progresses. The students are then forced to think for themselves, negotiate decision-making with their peers, and ultimately make a choice that may or may not be correct—and then deal with outcomes.

In the “real” (business) world, that’s exactly the type of process they will have to engage with every day. You can memorize all the financial and accounting formulas you want, but the real leap is taking the tools you’ve been given and learning to apply them in novel situations where no one tells you if that's correct.

How do you think experiences with NOLS have made these candidates better prepared to meet their goals?

First and foremost, NOLS sets our business students apart and gives them an excellent, concrete experience to talk about in interviews or networking events.

Second, and even deeper, they gain true connection. My students are very connected to their phones and electronics. Not having access to email and social media for a week encouraged them to look each other in the eye and get to know each other deeply and personally.

The students on one expedition commented on how their relationship formation was possible because they didn’t have any sort of technology on their trip.One night, all 10 of them huddled into one 4-person tent just to talk and laugh until nearly midnight. That kind of bonding doesn’t happen if phones are around.

An experience like this demonstrates how important it is for them to be present with one another and create community.

How do you see students incorporating lessons from their wilderness experiences into the classroom?

About a month after we return from the expedition, I hold a reunion meeting for our students to hear firsthand how they are incorporating NOLS lessons into the classroom.

My favorite story is what one student shared about how he works on group projects: 

Group projects are a fundamental part of our honors curriculum—every single course has some type of group project. This student shared that, when he was assigned to his group during the first week of class, he fell into his usual pattern of wanting to email all his group members and set up weekly meeting times and internal deadlines. 

Then, he paused and started second-guessing himself—was he being too bossy? How would his other group members respond to his taking charge?

He remembered some feedback he received from his hiking group on the day he was the designated leader: His group actually enjoyed how he initially communicated guidelines for breaks and how he took the lead, but was able to adapt to their changing needs throughout the day.

In the end, he felt more confident about his leadership style (he prefers being in the “driver” role, no surprise!) and decided to email his project group to set expectations while also explaining his ability to remain flexible.

Business school students on a NOLS expedition smile for a photo on top of a snowy mound

When did you first learn about NOLS?

On my first day of work, my supervisor told me about the custom education program we had established with NOLS. She was looking for a staff liaison to attend the trip with the students. I like to joke that the closest experience I had to wilderness education and hiking is that I married an Eagle Scout, but I do really enjoy being active.

So, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about leadership, a personal development interest of mine, and be outside for an extended period of time.

Which aspect of learning leadership in the wilderness surprises your students the most?

The students I work with are in the Canfield Business Honors Program, a highly selective program within The University of Texas’ already competitive and ranked undergraduate program. This means that I work with some extremely driven and high-achieving students. They often think of themselves as the person who “does all the work” in group projects, and are frequently the most burnt out.

These students usually have traditional stereotypes of a leader in their minds when they start school. What the leadership education at NOLS teaches them is the diverse aspects of leadership—how it actually involves a lot of active followership and self care, and not only leading from the front.

What surprised you about your two NOLS expeditions?

How much I still had to learn! I went into my second expedition feeling like a seasoned pro—my hiking boots were broken in, I knew to pack fewer clothes and just deal with the odor, and had practiced more efficient packing.

But the second expedition presented a whole different set of challenges that forced me to learn a new set of skills. For starters, it was very wet and water was much more plentiful compared to my first expedition.

This meant learning to make water crossings safely, dry my clothes with my own body heat, and find a trail after fresh snow had fallen. Oh, and we made pizza, and I was so surprised at how easy it is to create an oven in the wilderness!

Did your personal perspective on leadership change?

On my first expedition, I learned about how I was a “relationship master” and that my goal is to create cooperative work environments and make sure everyone feels heard. I could see how this is my default at work, which has its benefits for my team but also leads to me not being as decisive as I could be.

After my expedition, I started maturing in this style by speaking up more in meetings and being clear about my personal and work boundaries. I also became more aware of the leadership skills I wanted to cultivate in myself; specifically, using more data in my decision-making process and taking more initiative.

A group of business school students on a NOLS expedition hold up hand signals while the sun sets behind them

Who would you be most excited to see take a NOLS expedition for the first time?

I think the groups that have the most to gain are those that deal with ambiguity and uncertainty in their day-to-day operations, whether that’s a group of students who are wondering what’s next (after high school or college or their first job) or a work group that is in transition or stuck in a rut and wants a new way to solve an old problem.

Another group that might benefit from a NOLS expedition would be women in managerial or executive leadership roles within businesses, because expeditions are challenging and empowering and could be a great development opportunity.

In our own program, I’m determined to make the NOLS expedition more accessible for the underrepresented students of color and those from lower-income backgrounds. This includes continuing to showcase how important this curriculum and expedition are to my team at work, exploring more scholarship opportunities, and looking into corporate partnerships.

Was it a hard decision to be the staff liaison for your second expedition?

No! At the risk of sounding greedy and selfish, I hope to continue being the staff liaison for our future expeditions.

Because each group of students is new and unique, they create their own context and environment for learning, so I know that each expedition will be different and I’ll continue to learn something new about the wilderness, others, and myself.

Learn more about leadership skills development for your team.

Editor's Note: All photos courtesy of Stephanie Cantu.

Written By

Stephanie Cantu

Stephanie Cantu is the Senior Student Program Coordinator and an academic advisor for the Canfield Business Honors Program at The University of Texas at Austin. As a native Austinite, she fills her days with running, yoga, and discovering the best breakfast taco.

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