Vulnerabilities into Empowerment: What Alaska Meant to Me

By Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

Jan 23, 2017

two smiling NOLS students in a white double sea kayak next to a waterfall in Alaska
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Camarill Gutierrez

The more that time separates me from my NOLS Expedition with STEP in the summer of 2013, the more I find myself reflecting on the ephemeral 21 days that I spent in Prince William Sound. Preserved in the haze inherent to all fleeting memories, I remember the physical exhaustion, the arduous and cold days and the ill-fated cooking.

Even more so, I remember how naively prepared I felt in the weeks that preceded the expedition—confident about my ability to effortlessly make it through three weeks in the Alaskan wilderness.

It hadn’t been long since my family’s immigration status forced them to return to Mexico and while their absence was palpable, it drove me to find a path that would validate the sacrifices that they had made for me to stay in the U.S. without them.

During a time when stable housing was elusive and when I depended heavily on my school and community for support, I was accepted into the STEP program during my sophomore year of high school. For its duration, I would bike ride twice a month for an hour each way in the scalding Arizona heat to our meetings in downtown Tucson.

While I wavered uncomfortably through uncertainty, those bimonthly bike rides through the desert and bright-lit meetings in an air-conditioned library became a constant. There, I met with a group of students, each with their own intricate ambitions and motivations, and we prepared for the college application process, for our NOLS Expedition, and for our futures.

When the time came for our expedition, I was used to balancing the delicate nature of my education with a series of perplexing and unprecedented situations. I saw the opportunity to spend three weeks in Alaska as a welcome escape from the controlled chaos that surrounded my life. Still, our STEP coordinators emphasized the challenging nature of our trip as one unlike any other and advised us to mentally prepare for the weeks ahead.

The magnitude of being in a place so starkly different from the one where I grew up did not hit me until we had been dropped off by boat on the shore that would become our first campsite. It dawned on me, after walking through a shallow creek, that I had unknowingly picked a pair of leaky boots and that I was about to face a series of humbling experiences. After a few disastrous encounters with temperamental camp stoves, I dreamt of my mother’s cooking and craved the warm Arizona heat that I had been so eager to escape.

Though I was used to being on my own, each day on the Sound revealed and forced me to confront the complex layers that composed many of my weaknesses. As we racked up nautical miles, I grew to depend heavily on the other STEP students for support and encouragement. Slowly, we each grew from our own individual vulnerabilities and found ourselves evolving together in a synchronized unit bonded by friendship. We were grateful to be in the pristine hands of place that so few get to experience; we were confident that we would go back into the civilized world as better people.

Although I am now a third-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, I often reflect on the lessons that I learned in high school during my NOLS course. As a first generation college student, coming to a school like Penn has led me on an eye-opening path where I am constantly surrounded by some of the brightest and most inspiring of individuals.

However, I have also encountered academic and social challenges, have doubted my area of study, and have experienced profound disappointment. In the same way that I questioned whether I could survive Alaska, I questioned whether I could succeed in an environment where everyone seems to know what they are doing.

looking over the nose of a sea kayak toward blue glacier and mountains partly obscured by fog
Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

Although this past year has been a chaotic and unrestrained reminder of the uncertainty that constantly fills our lives, it was my NOLS course with STEP that taught me how to transform my vulnerabilities into empowerment. It was the need to work together that showed me that trust and friendship are necessary for survival. It was spending three weeks in the Alaskan wilderness of Prince William Sound that has allowed me to see the beauty in even the most adverse of situations.

About STEP and NOLS

In 2005 former NOLS instructor Tracy Baynes founded STEP, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing college preparation and leadership opportunities to under-resourced students in Arizona. That same year, STEP partnered with NOLS Custom Education to create a custom sea kayaking expedition in Alaska to help students hone their leadership skills and gain the confidence to step into new and unfamiliar environments and succeed. Since 2005, STEP has run 22 expeditions with NOLS.

Learn more about STEP at

Written By

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez (C’18) is originally from Tucson, Arizona and is majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with a minor in Consumer Psychology (Behavior & Marketing) at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, she is involved in the International Affairs Association and has held leadership positions within Penn for Immigrant Rights, an advocacy group seeking to be a voice for immigrant students and communities. Currently, she is spending a semester abroad in the United Kingdom in order to gain a better understanding of international globalization. She is passionate about social and international affairs, technology and innovation, and meeting new people.

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