Joint Perspective: International Educator and NOLS Parent on 21st Century Education

By Alex Phillips

May 23, 2015

We recently sat down with Dr. Beth Pfannl, Head of School at the American Overseas School of Rome, to discuss the role of NOLS in her own children’s lives. As an educator and administrator, Dr. Pfannl has extensive experience evaluating and managing best practice for student growth and development. In addition to being a member of the Board of Trustees of the European Council for International Schools (ECIS) and the American University of Rome, Dr. Pfannl was given the National Distinguished Principal Award from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and inducted into the Association for the Advancement of International Education Hall of Fame. Two of Dr. Pfannl’s children enrolled in NOLS courses during their summer breaks while in college. In this interview, she describes her family’s experience with NOLS and why she recommends it to international families around the world.

Group hiking along a lake in Alaska
Trekking through the Eastern Alaska Range. Photo by Kyle Duba.

NOLS: Thanks so much for making time for an interview. Can you tell us a bit about your family’s background and journey to NOLS?

Dr. Pfannl: When we first discovered NOLS, we were living in Paraguay. Although we spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities as a family, we were not big on camping and hiking all together. One of my daughters had always wanted to go to the Rockies and had heard about NOLS through a friend. She signed up for the thirty-day Absaroka Backpacking course, and a few years later, my son, her younger brother, went on the Alaska Backpacking and Sea Kayaking course. Now, over eleven years later, they still talk about their NOLS courses constantly. It was an incredibly meaningful experience for them both. Life changing actually.

How did NOLS affect your children despite their international upbringing?

After such an experience, they both realized that they could essentially do anything. That was the biggest lesson. It also taught them the importance of communication skills and working as a team member. At the beginning of a course it was a bit overwhelming how much there was to learn, but that quickly changed as they worked together with their teammates. NOLS definitely helped to build their confidence, and they certainly grew as people.

As both a parent and an educator, why would you recommend NOLS to other international families?

The truth is that growing up overseas it’s not always easy to find opportunities for young people to do things on your own. NOLS offers the perfect chance to learn to be independent, away from the comforts that one is accustomed to. On a NOLS course, you have to learn how to manage, not in a survival mode, but as part of a team. There are so many core life skills that are transferable: thinking about the basic things that you need to live comfortably, the organizational skills of carrying everything on your back for days or weeks at a time and being self-aware in a group setting. It trains you for so many important life skills that I can’t even begin to list them all. 

Instructor Sean Williams gives a class on glaciology, Prince William Sound, Alaska'
Glaciology class by NOLS instructor Sean Williams in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Photo by Cass Colman.


How do you think the NOLS curriculum links to what is being taught in international education?

In international schools, we talk a great deal about working as a team. The job market is such that we don’t really know which jobs will be in existence in the near future. What we do know though is that our students will have to be able to problem solve, collaborate and communicate with others. It is all about how you communicate and how you get your message across. I think the NOLS model is excellent at teaching these skills without students even realizing it at the time. When they reflect back, it all becomes clear how important these lessons were and how they influenced their lives for years to come.

What is different about a NOLS course compared to the outings you organize at your school?

We have shorter ropes course trips for team building at the beginning of the school year. However, schools have different boundaries and limitations than universities, for example, and we have to take that into account as school administrators when we organize grade level trips. I greatly encourage parents to research options such as NOLS for summer programs or as a gap year option. Families can work together to select a course that best suits their child.

What would you say to parents who are considering NOLS, but are worried about how their child will integrate on a course?

My son’s group had students from very diverse backgrounds, and a few who had never really had to take care of themselves before. That was a struggle at the beginning. But for me, that is why NOLS is so great. After a few days, you realize that it doesn’t matter where anyone comes from. Everyone is the same. Everyone learns to contribute equally, work together as an integral member of the team, trust each other, and then magically they realize they have achieved something truly memorable. An experience of a lifetime they will never forget. That’s what NOLS is all about.

Students hiking in the mountains
Students near the summit. Photo by Mauricio Clauzet.

Check out another post by Alex: The Alps Don’t Have Everything

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Written By

Alex Phillips

Alex Phillips worked as the NOLS European recruitment coordinator. Alex has been on multiple NOLS courses, including an Outdoor Educator course in the Rockies, which she took for professional development while working at an international school in Switzerland. In addition to working for NOLS, she is currently completing her master’s in experiential education at the University of Cumbria.

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