Why I Used My AmeriCorps Award for NOLS

By Becky Mares

May 3, 2015

Becky Mares in Alaska
Taking a break in the Brooks Range. Photo courtesy of Becky Mares.

We tracked down NOLS and AmeriCorps grad Becky Mares to ask a few questions about how her experiences combined to help her become the successful leader she is today.

Why did you choose NOLS?

For almost 10 years, NOLS was constantly in the back of my head…and for some reason or another—schedule, finances, ability to take time off work, time away from family and my dog—it never happened.

What enabled me to do NOLS was the ability to use my AmeriCorps stipend, which covered almost all of my expenses. Since grad school was the only other idea for using my AmeriCorps stipend, and it carried so much uncertainty, where I knew for ten years that I wanted to do NOLS...well, the choice became obvious to me: Absolutely!

What lessons did you take away from your course?

Climbing a scree slope in Alaska while backpacking
Climbing a scree slope. Photo by Becky Mares

Our team developed two mantras throughout the expedition. #1: Baby steps. #2: Don't panic.

1. Baby Steps: It's important to remember that a long journey is just made up of a series of baby steps…Even when looking at the steepest, rockiest, most unstable mountainside, you can still climb it safely (and with respect to the environment and team around you) if you just take small, concentrated baby steps.

2. Don't Panic: Even (and especially) during a grizzly bear sighting, you have to remember not to panic. It doesn't do you or anyone around you any good. Stay calm, remember your bear safety, and unless the bear is showing warning signs, take a moment to appreciate the wonder of seeing this majestic creature…

To this day when there is a stressful project happening at work or a personal challenge, it helps me to remember the two mantras of baby steps and don't panic.

Lastly, though Whisperlite meals may not taste like much compared to most frontcountry food, they taste like heaven in the backcountry!

The entire expedition also taught me the importance of treating yourself (body and mind), your home, and your surroundings well. Your body (and your backpack, in this case) is all you have to carry you through this life, so it's important to stop when you feel hotspots and do some self-care. Otherwise, you may render yourself—and those around you—hindered for the rest of the journey.

What are you up to now?

I work for Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America. Our No Kid Hungry campaign combines access, education and awareness to ensure that every child has healthy food every day. I was a coordinator for over five years, going out in the community to teach cooking courses and grocery store tours. In February 2015, I stepped into a new role as our Community Engagement Manager, with the primary goal of increasing volunteer activity and engagement in No Kid Hungry's mission and [our educational] Cooking Matters programming throughout Colorado.

My NOLS experience definitely continues to inform my work (I even put up my NOLS graduation sticker at my desk so that it would be a reminder of the lessons I learned). Namely the 4-7-1 leadership theory has stuck with me and informed the way I approach my role in my organization.

Map reading
Planning the next steps. Photo by Becky Mares.

4 Roles: There are varied professional experiences where we need to embody a certain type of leadership to fit the situation. Even if you are not the director or leader of the pack, it's as important to play an active role as a "passenger" to help check the navigation of the team.

7 Skills: A leader does need to possess the seven attributes, but it is also important to recognize and celebrate which ones are your particular strengths. Identify the characteristics that are harder for you, and surround yourself with people who are strong in those areas. An expedition is only as successful as the team together.

1 Style: No matter what leadership theory you follow, or what advice you get from how someone else leads, you have one unique style and need to stay true to the individual approach you bring to the table.

Are you glad you used your AmeriCorps award for NOLS?

Pausing and taking in the view in Alaska
Pause and enjoy the beauty. Photo courtesy of Becky Mares.

I was very lucky in that I had paid off my college loans by the time I was eligible to use my AmeriCorps award, so it was an easy decision to use it towards NOLS. However, even if I had had loans to pay, I still would have used my award for NOLS. When else in your life will you take the opportunity to go on a 2-week backpacking expedition north of the Arctic circle, and spend your time climbing mountains, fording rivers, following animal tracks, and picking wild blueberries to put in your morning oatmeal?

The world is becoming more and more paved-over, and we are losing our wild places. Go! Connect with the trees and hillsides and wildlife. The more advocates we have for the natural world, the better. You will never regret spending the time or money on the invaluable experience of a NOLS course.

Earn up to $2,000 match for your AmeriCorps award on a NOLS semester: Learn more here.

Written By

Becky Mares

Becky Mares is grad of both NOLS and AmeriCorps. She used her AmeriCorps award to fund her Brooks Range Backpacking course in 2013 and took a Wilderness First Aid course the following year.

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