Learning Leadership in the High Sierras

Connor Varney

A Leadership Enriching Experience

For approximately one month this summer, I embarked on an expedition to backpack through the High Sierra Mountains. With 13 other incredible people, half of whom were strangers to me before we left, I set out on a life changing experience. On our expedition we pushed our mental and physical limits. We did this by pushing over mountain passes in thin air at 12,000′ above sea level, and by pushing the comfort zones of ourselves and those we traveled with. For 189 miles we pushed.

I learned many things during this trip. About myself I learned how strong a positive and confident mental attitude can be, and the seemingly mountain-sized challenges one can overcome if they put their fullest efforts toward it. One of the most important lessons i took away from my trip was to make sure to enjoy every second, and every step that I can. Of the countless people our large group from Ohio passed along the way, they all were wonderfully happy to be alive. I tried to reflect that attitude as much as I could on the trail. No matter how sore my legs were, how heavy my pack felt that morning, or how many more miles it would be till I was able to take my boots off, I was happy to be alive and living out this incredible experience. At times I felt as if i was walking on another planet, past gargantuan granite mountains, and through fields flooded with seas of snow. So few people on earth will even get the opportunity to live the way my friends and I did, and see the sites we saw. Many times I entrusted my life to the decisions the other students on this trip made, but this is because this trip taught me how to trust people, and how much trust their decisions and actions will merit.

Backpacking is the perfect testament to how much one can go without. When you live off of whatever you can carry, and every pound matters, your life at home is put into perspective. This makes me think of how lucky and privileged I am to live in the comfortable manner I do in the front-country. Electricity, and the internet, and my warm bed are all things I love and take for granted most days. But I do know that I am more than capable of going without, and that can transfer over to many other things in life.

Out of the countless memories I made from this trip, one of the most memorable came early on. During an ascent of a pass, one of my good friends fell under an asthma attack. However, this asthma attack progresses into an altitude sickness. The two trip leaders and another great friend, who were all certified Wilderness First Responders, had to carry my sick friend down the mountain, to drastically reduce the elevation. Because they were only able to get so far down, and with not much success in reviving my friend out of the sickness, search and rescue was called in and an Evac-Helicopter was sent. During this time I was given the rest of the group to lead in the absence of the trip leaders. After watching my friend being carried down the mountain in order for her to stay alive, I had to keep my composure and help the rest of the rest of the group, of which there was little combined backpacking experience or traumatic experiences like the current one for that matter. I knew how important this trip was to my sick friend. Every day from then on I felt even luckier I was out there. At any time I caught myself in doubt of whether I could keep going I would think of my friend. After she was taken away by the helicopter. I inherited the bear-proof canister that she had in her back. This also taught me a valuable lesson, that no one wants to hear people complain about problems everyone has. At some point in any given day, everybody’s feet hurt, or their pack was heavy, sometimes because of a second bear canister, and there’s no use in complaining about it. That is the last thing that will help solve the issue.

Self preservation was very important on the trip. An everyday necessity was staying organized and on-top of what you needed and where you were. Once acclimated, I knew how to use everything we brought, where it was on my bag, were we were on an given day and how much further of a hike we had till the next camp. I think these priority and self-management skills were highly important and can be very beneficial is transferred to any daily life. Having a plan for the day and how to accomplish your goals is something I struggled with early on in my college career, and this trip did great things to help me improve these and how efficient I can be with my day. We had to be prepared for every eventuality. Whether that meant climbing up and traversing a snow-capped ridge line, knowing exactly where your rain gear was whenever nasty gray clouds would present themselves emerging over peaks ready to rain down on the trail, or even making sure you had enough water in order to make it to the next mountain lake or stream.

Completing the journey with other people was also transformational for me. Before this trip I was typically reserved in the amount of people I could actually trust, or even allow myself to get along with for that matter. Afterwards I know I gained many friends that I can trust, but I also learned how to open myself up when the situation calls for it, and how beneficial it can be. On top of taking care of yourself everyday, you had to look out for everyone else out there with you. Since we could only move as fast as the slowest hiker that day, it was very important to be open with everyone, and make sure that they were taking care of themselves. Or being aware when someone was having a tough time and offering them help. This can go far in building relationships, and can be a great key to forming new ones.

This trip will be and already has been a benefit to me in regard to my professional career here at Ohio State. I am currently employed at the Outdoor Adventure Center, and work as a climbing instructor and a trip leader. The backpacking trip was a great opportunity to get leadership skills and grow as a leader myself. Because of this trip and my performance, I had the privilege to take a group of incoming freshman along with another trip leader, on a Wilderness Welcome trip to backpack and rock climb in Colorado. I hope for all this leadership experience to positively reflect when it comes time to search for a career post graduation. The ability to lead and be a flexible leader, whether it be in the Backcountry or a research lab, can be a great foundation and stepping stone in a professional career. Hopefully this trip can reflect positively, along with a materials science degree, in my search for a career in outdoor gear development. I hope for this trip experience to give me greater knowledge on how to go on successful trips into the wilderness, and get a greater insight into the gear I use whether it’s backpacking, rock climbing, or skiing, and inspire me to make improvements to save lives and help adventurers to enjoy themselves even more. I have future goals to travel the world and see as much as I am able to, and this expedition greatly fortified my knowledge and confidence to set off into the unknown.

 

Leadership Training (LT)

Danielle LoPrinzi

Leadership

For my STEP Signature Project I participated in an eight week long program in Columbus called Leadership Training (LT) and volunteered at the Columbus Speech and Hearing Center (CSHC). LT was about 15-20 hours per week and consisted of teachings, speakers, trainings, and meals. My volunteer work was about six hours each week, and I helped set up/clean up therapy sessions and engage with the clients. The primary objective of my project was to gain experience in leadership doing Leadership Training while seeking opportunities to practice my developing leadership skills while gaining experience in my field of interest.

I learned some very important lessons as a result of my Project. Leadership Training taught me the importance of being an open and vulnerable leader. I have grown in better knowing how to resolve conflict among other leaders and lead by example in this way. These concepts were outside of my comfort zone, but they contributed to a significant amount of personal growth. This summer gave me the chance to explore individual, group, and community values. I believe that I have increased my level of self-awareness and understanding of myself. I have learned how to better work effectively with others and exemplify teamwork. Through LT and the CSHC, I was able to use my leadership skills for the betterment of others. I have learned that I am capable of implementing the knowledge and skills that I have gained this summer into my future including my continuing education, career, family, friendships, and more. There are many things that I am passionate about, and I am confident that Leadership Training has equipped me to fulfill my aspirations in an effective way.

The summer was definitely a test of my independence and my character. This has undoubtedly been the busiest summer I have had but also one of the greatest. I was living away from home during the summer for the first time. I learned how to live with housemates and take care of things like grocery shopping, cooking, and paying rent. My Project taught me about the responsibilities that come with age and how to effectively manage them. Having a community to encourage me is something I found very helpful.

I have further recognized the world’s need for leaders. My completion of my leadership project can allow me to positively impact the community. I believe it will enable me to make an effective contribution to individuals and to The Ohio State University’s campus. Having participated in Leadership Training is beneficial for me both now and in the future in ways that are personally, socially, and intellectually challenging.

I was immersed in this Leadership Training community for many hours per week; the program was held all day each Sunday, as well as Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. The LT sessions, workshops, retreats, meals, and the community contributed to my personal transformation. On Sundays, I spent the whole day with my team of 13 men and women who were all striving to grow in leadership and in relationships with one another. Along with learning and growing together, we cooked meals with one another and played games together. This program enabled me to experience and build new relationships. LT has allowed me to show leadership in my church, which is very important to me, as faith is a big part of what makes me who I am.

On Wednesday nights, I met with my women’s small group. This group was comprised of six members. We discussed our lives, goals, and transformation. The six of us encouraged one another and kept each other accountable. Halfway through the program, I went to the LT women’s retreat. At the retreat, we were taught how important it is to rest. It is so easy to get caught up in the busyness of life and determination to achieve our goals that we forget to take time for refreshment.

Throughout my project, I kept a journal. This was a helpful tool for me to use to take notes and reflect on my growth. I like having this journal to be able to look back on my notes and things I have learned this summer. It is encouraging to read through the ways I have seem development in so many areas of my life. Additionally, meeting consistently with a leadership mentor was beneficial for me to make sure that I was staying on track to achieve these intentions and goals that I had set for myself this summer.

Additionally, time spent gaining experience in my field of interest led to change and growth. This summer, I achieved my goal of gaining more experience in Speech-Language Pathology. I volunteered and observed at the Columbus Speech and Hearing Center. I was able to make connections while in Columbus which is important for my future career and aspirations.

The change and transformation that I have experienced this summer is valuable for my life. My personal growth and development is important and relates to my academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans. Contributing the quality of leadership to the world is so important. We need leaders throughout all areas of life. The world needs leaders to raise up even more leaders. My STEP Signature Project has helped me be who I want to be. After completing my undergraduate degree in Speech and Hearing Sciences, I will attend graduate school and earn a master’s degree. I am very passionate about my future career and ultimately becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP). I intend to be able to use my leadership skills and knowledge to fulfill the individual needs of people who seek out the services of an SLP. STEP has helped by giving me the confidence, patience, and leadership skills to accomplish these things.

I am confident that I will be able to use my skills to help patients to reach their own goals. It is so necessary to be a leader in this field of work. A speech pathologist provides services specific to individual needs of their patients. SLPs have to show a lot of initiative they need to be attentive and make therapy activities that best suit each individual client. SLPs evaluate speech, use many assessments, and treat clients. They have to come up with individualized plans to help patients reach their goals. Leadership is a very important characteristic that I will need as an SLP. Also, I am passionate about children and am excited about the possibility of working with them in my future career. Through LT and the CSHC, STEP has allowed me to develop leadership skills that I can use as I serve children in my future.

 

STEP Reflection Prompts

1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

The High Sierra Leadership expedition was an intense, life changing, 23-day backpacking trip through the Sierra Nevada region of California. On the trip, we hiked through 190+ miles of the John Muir trail to see just a few of the incredible sights that nature has to offer, while learning outdoor resourcefulness and skills.

2. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

While completing my STEP project, I learned a lot about myself and the world around me. Being away from my friends, family, and many modern conveniences, I realized exactly what aspects of my life in the front country are important. For example, while technology such as cell phones are nice to have, they are often a distraction that stops you from living life to the fullest. Before this trip, I could spend hours doing nothing but scrolling through social media on my phone. Now, I feel that I can live without doing that, and have been making more time to do things that I love, rather than wasting time on things like Twitter and Instagram.
My view of the world has changed because I now have a greater appreciation for my body, my relationships, and the earth. Before this trip, I felt very self-conscious about the way I looked, thought, and acted. Now, after completing such a tremendous and strenuous task, I have the confidence to go about my daily life feeling good about myself. Not having contact with friends and family helped to show me just how much I care about the people I have in my life, so now I can truly appreciate the special moments I share with them. I have also become a vegetarian in an attempt to decrease waste and make a small change in my lifestyle to help protect our environment.

3. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?

One of the activities that led to my transformation was being leader of the day (LOD). As leader of the day, your responsibility is to get the group from point A to point B without any major issues. Before this trip, I did not have very many true leadership experiences, so I learned a lot in the three days I was leader. For me, one of the biggest struggles I had in this position was confidence. As someone who struggles to be confident in their daily life, it was hard to be put in a new situation with a lot of pressure and skills you are unfamiliar with. However, by my third day as LOD, I felt much more confident in my abilities. I believe that this experience has transferred over into my personal life in the way that I now have a greater sense of drive to be a great leader, and the tools to accomplish that.
This trip was also very physically difficult for me. Walking an average of 12 miles a day uphill with a 30+ backpack was hard, but seeing and feeling the reward of a hard work out has made me want to push myself even harder. I am now training for a half marathon to keep myself in shape.
Through all the hardships I experienced on this trip, I also experienced a lot of beautiful moments. Seeing the sunrise from the top of Mount Whitney, the flowing rivers, towering trees, and colorful wildflowers was worth the long, hard days on the trail. The moments these sights created have made me want to do better to help our planet heal from the pollution and mistreatment it has suffered at the hands of humans. Thus, I have become a lot more aware of the ways I contribute to waste and pollution, and have also committed to a vegetarian life style.

4. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? Write one or two paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans. 


This trip took every once of will I had in me not to give up, and forced me to push on, mentally, physically, and emotionally. However, everything it took out of me, it gave back tenfold in the beauty of the outdoors, the friendships I made, and the strength I found within myself. Taking away the things that made my daily life comfortable made me a stronger, more independent person, as I now know that I can survive on my own without the crutches I used to use everyday. I feel that I am more confident, and am living a life that is less focused on distractions, and more focused on bettering myself, the people and things I care about, and my environment. I will take this confidence and the leadership skills I have gained with me as I go into the field of special education.
This trip has shown me how to motivate myself and others to do the things that may not always be easy. In special education, the obstacles presented to a student may seem as hard as climbing a mountain. But, with the right amount of perseverance, motivation, patience and effort, you can overcome any obstacle. I will take this lesson with me as I go on to my teaching career, and use it in my personal and academic life as well. I believe it will help me to be the best teacher, friend, student, and person I can be.

STEP Reflection: Colorado Leadership Training

For my STEP signature project, I chose to attend a leadership training (LT) program in Winter Park, Colorado through H2O, my church on campus. At LT, we learned how to be leaders both within the church community and outside of it. We also worked 40 hours a week at the local YMCA.
The main thing that impacted me this summer was living in the Rocky Mountains. I learned to love and experience nature like I never have before. I learned that I could push through a 14 mile hike up one of the most dangerous peaks in Colorado and come out the other side. This, combined with the leadership training that I received through the LT program, has transformed me into someone who knows that she can persevere through anything life throws at her. This summer also taught me a lot about adapting to tough situations, like the 9,000 feet of elevation that made it hard to breath and the sometimes overwhelmingly challenging aspects of the LT program.
Towards the end of LT, my friends and I decided that we wanted to hike Long’s Peak, a mountain that has a 47% rate of summitting. Long’s Peak is one of Colorado’s many 14ers, or mountains that are higher than 14,000 feet in elevation at their summit. We hit the trail on a Sunday, at one o’clock in the morning. It was a very strenuous hike with lots of scrambling up steep, slippery rock, but after about eight hours, we made it. Coming down the mountain was equally hard, made worse by the fact that we were hurrying to beat the thunderstorm. My legs were so tired that I could barely pick my feet up. Eventually, after 14 hours, we made it back to our cars. This experience taught me that I can do things that I never thought possible. It also taught me that I have a great group of friends and a God that I can rely on in difficult situations.
The LT program consisted of a worship service on Mondays, a workshops on Wednesdays and Fridays, and a whole day devoted to God with my team. On top of that, we worked 40 hours a week at the YMCA. This schedule was a bit overwhelming to me. It also meant that a lot of the time, I had to choose investing in my spiritual health and my relationship with God over going hiking or camping. This showed me that life is really about balance.
My job at the YMCA also helped transform me. I worked at the front desk of the Programs’ department, where I signed people up for activities. I went into this job with no secretarial experience at all. Now, I can say that I am so much better at customer service, clerical duties, and problem solving.
All of these experiences are valuable to me. Summitting Long’s Peak is something that I will never forget, and all of the hours that I spent hiking this summer have shown me that hiking is a new hobby that I never want to give up. It is amazing stress relief and excellent physical exercise. The hours I invested into LT activities like team days pushed me to become a better follower of God. That is invaluable for my spiritual health. It is also something that I can share with others at my church and at Ohio State. Lastly, my job at the YMCA this summer has been excellent for my professional development skills. All of these things together make up a pretty great summer, and they will have a lasting impact on my personal, spiritual, and professional health for years to come.

STEP Reflection: High Sierra Expedition

Gagan “Sky” Mandava

Leadership

My STEP project entailed of a very difficult backpacking trip through the High Sierra Mountains in California. All 14 people needed to hike on average about 13 miles a day with heavy packs. Through the great deal of physical, emotional, and mental stress, the trip was one of the most influential experiences of my life.

This trip changed my understanding of many different aspects of my life. For example, I learned that I am generally a more reserved and introverted person and that was perfectly acceptable in society. I realized this after we played a personality trait game and, at the end, I was labeled as a “Relationship Master”. This personality trait was the opposite of a “Driver”, which I used to think was the only successful personality you could have. Once you go out to the backcountry for 3 weeks straight and have to trek through many dangerous situations, you realize that your personality does not matter in the grand scale of things. The only thing that does matter is that you are human and you are alive. You’re personality defines you and differentiates you from other human beings, but there is no such thing as a “bad” personality as long as you have good intentions.

There are many events and relationships I’ve made on this trip that helped me be more comfortable with who I am. From the 14 people on the trip, there was a wide variety of relationships to make. Some of the relationships I’ve made on this trip were some of the deepest relationships I have ever made with anyone. These relationships were forged through the intense physical and mental stress of the entire trip. After the trip, I flew out of California with the strongest bonds anyone could have with someone they met a month ago. Of course, I did not get along perfectly with EVERYONE, but that definitely taught me how to communicate and work with people that have different views and opinions than you do.

The only human interactions I had on the trip were not just with my group. The trail that we traveled was one of the most popular hiking trails in the United States. This meant that we met a lot of different people from all around the world on the trail. There were all different types of people: young and old, male and female, experienced and first-timers, and etc. These interactions with this diverse group of people definitely made me realize that no matter who you are, if you put your mind to a goal, you can achieve it.

Beyond the human interactions, nature was probably the biggest cause of my personal transformation. Everyday there was a new extremely beautiful view to be seen. These views were the type of pictures you see in motivational posters. But it was one thing to see it on a 2d poster, and a completely different life-changing experience to see it in real life. You can see all of the little intricacies and how each little plant and animal moves throughout the scene. It was truly one of the most beautiful events that I have ever experienced, and I was extremely proud of myself for pushing my body and mind to the extremes just to get myself to that situation. I would sit and watch this beauty take place and think about how I was seeing things that less than a 100,000th of the worlds population will ever see in real life. This made me realize that, if I put my mind to it and push myself, I can accomplish anything.

Another event that helped me grow as a person was the day that I was the leader-of-the-day. This entailed of leading the group through the trail, delegating jobs, and keeping up the group morale. Even though this was one of the most stressful days of the trip, I learned that keeping a positive attitude and having the right knowledge was extremely important in order to be a good leader.

This trip has absolutely enriched my personal life. It made me feel more confident in myself. It taught me how to be a good leader, on top of the many wilderness-related technical skills. I plan on using these leadership skills to take control of my academic goals and my professional goals. I will also use the technical skills to go out to do more outdoor activities, which will definitely increase my physical and mental wellness.

My Time in the Mountains: High Sierra Leadership Expedition

For my STEP signature project, I embarked on a 23-day, 190 mile backpacking expedition on the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trail traversing the wilderness of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. The trip concluded by summiting Mt. Whitney- the highest point of elevation in the lower 48 states. During the expedition, each member of the group got the chance to serve as leader of the day to essentially develop and refine their leadership capabilities. Additionally, each member was tasked to research and teach a leadership theory to the group throughout the expedition, as well as topics relating to the outdoors and backpacking.

Photo credits: Julia Mattis

Taken at McClure Meadow

Before this trip, I had no experience backpacking whatsoever, let alone backpacking on one of the most challenging trails in the country. I wanted to really push myself in ways I never had before, and go outside of my comfort zone. While this trip has been going on for three years, this year’s expedition was unique in that the Sierras got record amounts of snow. This meant the landscape was going to be much different than years prior and there would be some added risk as well. When the trip began, the altitude and terrain was a lot to get acquainted with. Some of the trail was cutoff due to rivers being too hazardous to cross and we had to make many detours by venturing off the trail at times. These unanticipated obstacles required me to really motivate myself as well as other members of the group who were struggling. Even though the trail presented its fair share of challenges, it didn’t take away from the beauty of the mountains and the astounding atmosphere that surrounded us. I found that as the trip went on, I discovered a new fire within myself to do whatever I set my mind to. I realized that the biggest thing holding me back in certain situations was myself and the skewed mentality that I was too weak or not up for the challenge.

In addition, I also discovered a newfound appreciation towards the power of leadership and how different people or situations can have a profound effect on it. Having some prior leadership experience, I went into the my first role as leader of the day very confident and ready for the challenges ahead. However, the day was extremely difficult and I found it hard to keep up my overall morale let alone the morale of the group. I found this made me become somewhat nonassertive and lose a bit of my previous confidence. At the end of the day, I was able to receive valuable feedback from my fellow group members and thus take their advice and apply it to when I would be leader of the day again. I realized that leadership is a skill that can be constantly refined and that no one can achieve a perfect leadership style. Being in such a challenging environment, my previous idea of leadership made a total about face; however, I feel significantly more prepared and confident in my leadership skills moving forward.

The group prior to summiting Goodale Pass

When on such a demanding trip, I quickly learned the importance of meaningful social interactions between other members of the group. In the end, we all went through the same thing, and while we may have experienced it differently, we deeply depended on one another for help when the time came. There was one day during the trip where I hit a low point physically. I developed painful blisters on the backs of my heels and found it extremely difficult to maintain an efficient pace. This day was particularly difficult as well due to the fact that we were crossing a mountain pass through many miles of snow. There were various moments where I felt like giving up due to the pain that encompassed each step; however, with the ongoing and powerful motivation of my group I was able to persevere and reach the top of the pass. After this difficult day I was able to reflect and take away that if it weren’t for the ongoing support and encouragement of the group, I would’ve had a much harder time completing the mission. Overall, I discovered that my sense of self-motivation has the ability to be strengthened through the encouragement and support of others.

Throughout the expedition, each group member was assigned to teach a leadership theory, that is, an idea of how good and effective leadership can be attained. Out of all the theories that were taught, I uncovered that my leadership style most aligned the the Servant-Leadership theory. This theory emphasizes the importance of the leader-follower relationship by encouraging the leader to have a great deal of empathy and put the needs of others first and help people develop and perform as highly as possible. During my time as leader of the day toward the end of the trip, I found myself constantly seeking out the input of my team; asking them how they felt about certain aspects of the day and what plan(s) seemed most appealing and plausible to them. I also made a strong effort to constantly check in on people to see how they were feeling physically and mentally and make accommodations if necessary. By learning about all the leadership theories and selecting one that I most identified with, I was able to enhance and refine my skills as a leader as well as widen my breadth of knowledge of different ways to be a successful one.

Aside from learning various technical skills, I discovered a large amount of information about myself during my time in the mountains. By successfully going through such a demanding trip that required physical, mental, and emotional strength, I realized that I have more capabilities than I ever imagined. I am capable of walking through miles of snow, up mountain passes, and through forceful rivers. I can now get through arduous moments by adapting a positive attitude and outlook, and I can more effectively recognize my emotions and the emotions of others and process them accordingly. These skills will undoubtably have a valuable impact on my life moving forward. By discovering these qualities, I feel I can walk through my life with a higher sense of confidence and adapt a level head during hard times or situations. Next time I have a big paper to write or an important exam or interview, I will remember what I did in the mountains and how I was able to rise above the obstacles and step up to the challenge. With this confidence, I feel more motivated to go after my goals and achieve success.

 

STEP Reflection: High Sierra Leadership Expedition

My STEP Project was taking part in an Outdoor Adventure Center sponsored, leadership-focused backpacking trip to the High Sierra Mountains in California. Every day there was a designated leader of the day, who would make all decisions for that day of hiking, as well as manage other things group morale and finding water.

My appreciation of the world we live in on a day to day basis was transformed dramatically on this trip. In the backcountry, it’s not possible to just go to the kitchen quick to get a glass of water. Even cooking food can be a challenge. From sparingly using fuel, all the way to taking measures every night to prevent animals from eating our food, we had to think through everything that could go wrong that would leave us without food. Perhaps the most interesting daily occurrence that changed on the trip was the use of a smartphone. I left mine in Columbus when we boarded the plane for California; for the first day it was not a comfortable feeling having my “phone pocket” empty. The process of learning how to not use social media and constant news updates though was, for the most part, relatively easy after the first day. This period of total removal from all modern technology and conveniences is what helped give me a better understanding of just how sophisticated the world we live in today is.

Some people have described backpacking as just a bunch of chores in and around walking. I found this to be fairly accurate on the trip. Getting water was no small task. In the mornings, small streams that may have been there in the evening when we arrived to camp were gone because the snow would refreeze overnight, and then melt during the day. This led to the formation of a crew of “water wizards” every morning. Around 3 or 4 of us would take everyone in the group’s water bottles and extra water sacks for cooking-water, and trek down (or up) to the nearest water source to fill up and then purify the water. Then, every evening when we found a suitable campsite, we would have to set up our tent, or shelter for the night. The last thing we often did as a group chore-wise was building the bear-cave. This included putting everything that had a scent and would attract critters, like toothpaste and chap-stick, into a pile next to one or two big boulders. Then, we would have to collect enough rocks to cover it all, and then find more small ones to fill in all the gaps. These camping chores of protecting your food from animals, finding good water sources, purifying the water to drink, and setting up a “home” to sleep in every night made me realize just how nice it is living in a house with running water and protection from the elements outside, as well as animals.

Going into the trip, I expected the views to be spectacular. The experience of climbing a mountain pass to move along the trail, paired with the view from the top, was a euphoric feeling like no other. As good as I thought that view and feeling was going to be, it was 10 times better. Looking back, one of the most fascinating passes we climbed was the very first one. The trail was covered in snow, so we had to make our own snow-trek up, and it was the first time experiencing everything that comes with climbing a mountain, like the wind picking up the higher you go, and with each passing step the view of the trees in the valley getting smaller. This experience on every single mountain I climbed helped to grow my appreciation of how powerful nature can be.

Spending three weeks in the backcountry with 13 strangers unmistakably forges bonds like no other. Nowhere else in my life has friends been made so quickly, and then also tested so quickly through the struggle of carrying a backpack full of gear needed for survival uphill more than a thousand feet. Other students on the trip helped carry fuel to make food, some of the food I’d be eating, the water purifiers, the other half of my two-person tent, and so many other things needed to live. It’s sufficient to say, I needed them. The strange relationship of relying on a stranger (or at least a stranger at the beginning) to literally survive, as well needing them for moral support and just to help the time go by while hiking was completely foreign to me on day 1. Adjusting to this new way of reliance and life gave me a great perspective of what it’s like to need somebody so much, and also how to help them get through the tough times, because we were “in this together.”

Throughout the trip, I was a “Leader of the Day” twice times. On those days, I was in charge of making all decisions regarding close to everything for the backpacking that day, and was given feedback about how I performed that night. It was different being put in a leadership position in the mountains rather than what I have experience in the past, which gave rise to lots of scenarios never encountered before in which adaptability and openness to change was necessary to make good decisions. The confidence gained and leadership experience will no doubt transfer into my life in the front country as a student leader for now, but one day hopefully a leader in the engineering industry. The engineering industry is also somewhat unique in that the job of an engineer, essentially, is to come up with a creative, realistic solution to all sorts of problems. Creativity is a skill which I think is not necessary all-or-nothing, but can be learned and improved upon. By widening the experiences I have undertaken and accomplishments I have achieved, I truly believe that my creativity and knowledge that can help to come up with diverse and unique solutions to problems will be improved. So, by spending three weeks in the Sierras, I have received a whole new exposure to backcountry and mountain things, such as the “micro-spikes” we strapped to our shoes which helped to give us more traction on snow and ice. Exposure to things like this would have happened nowhere else for me, and the knowledge I gained could prove to be invaluable in coming up with breakthrough solutions to various problems I may encounter in my life as an engineer.

 

High Sierra Leadership Expedition

My STEP signature project was the High Sierra Leadership Expedition. This expedition consisted of a twenty-one-day backpacking trip through the beautiful John Muir Trail in Southern California. The expedition focused on learning leadership skills through both experiences and analyzing various leadership theories.

Going into this expedition I expected to struggle physically to complete this trip. The trip leaders at the Outdoor Adventure Center did a great job of describing the physical challenges that we would face on the trip. Waking up at 3 am, hiking up and down mountains for hours at a time, and living in snow covered mountain tops and sandy deserts was the reality of this trip and I was secretly terrified that I would not make it. This past spring leading up to the expedition I made sure to train as best I could to prepare my body for the challenges we would face on the trail. For the first time in my life, I created and stuck to a workout plan that wasn’t given to me by a coach or prompted by a friend. What I didn’t realize while I was training my body was that it would be my mind that would face the real challenges of the trip. Once we hit the trail it became clear that I would not struggle physically as much as I anticipated. Unfortunately, this was not the case for everyone on the team. The main challenge for many people on the team was going to be the physical challenge and the day to day adjustment of living on the trail. Team members began to look to me for leadership and guidance as they saw that I was handling myself well on the trail. I knew that this trip was going to require me to be a leader in certain situations, but from very early on it was evident that I needed to be a leader every day if we were going to complete the expedition. This mentality of being a leader every day is my main takeaway from this expedition. Before this expedition, I saw myself as a capable leader when it was necessary but often I would shy away from leadership. This trip gave me the confidence to be a leader every day instead of every now and then.

The situation that made clear to me that I would have to be a leader every day is one that I hope to never experience again. One of the main aspects of the trip was that every day there would be different leaders of the day. In the beginning, this was two people who worked together to lead the group through the day and as we gained more experience everyone had the opportunity to lead the group by themselves. The leaders of the day oversaw everything from food and water, navigation, and risk management. The two leaders from the Outdoor Adventure Center maintained a hands-off role but were always there for advice or to take over if a situation called for them. This aspect of the trip was what I was most excited for coming into it and I hoped to learn a lot from the experience.

My first chance to be a leader of the day came on day 3 of the expedition. On day 2 we had hiked over the difficult Goodale pass and camped on a rock outcropping surrounded as far as the eye could see by snow. Many of the team members were a bit shaken up by the difficulty of previous day’s hike and were nervous for what the following day held. The night before, while I was preparing for the next day, there were several things that were making me nervous. For one, I was paired with a team member who had struggled immensely the previous day and I was concerned about their ability to lead while also taking care of themselves. Two, I was worried about navigation through the seemingly endless frozen tundra ahead of us. There were no footprints from previous hikers ahead of us and I was not very confident using the map and compass yet. To make a long story short the next day went horribly. While hiking up a snow covered ridge one of our team members started to show symptoms of High Altitude Cerebral Edema, a serious form of altitude sickness that can be fatal if not dealt with quickly. The participant did not have the ability to walk under their own power and their condition was deteriorating rapidly. The OAC trip leaders and I had to take immediate action and try to get this team member to a lower elevation. The situation ended with the participant being evacuated by helicopter to the nearest hospital. This whole ordeal was unlike anything anyone on the team had experienced before. I handled myself much better than I had expected. In the moment, I was calm and making sure I was doing everything I could to help the situation. The spring before the expedition I had taken a Wilderness First Responder class on the weekends and I credit my training in that class as to why I handled myself so well. Looking back, as soon as the helicopter flew away I started being a leader for the rest of the group. Some people were pretty shaken up by seeing their friend being flown off on a helicopter. I knew that I had a responsibility to do everything I could to make people feel emotionally safe on this trip. From then on people looked to me for leadership as they knew that I would do everything in my power to assure their safety.

I did not recognize this role change in the moment. It was just something that needed to happen to assure the success of the expedition. I wasn’t thinking about being a leader. I was simply thinking about those around me instead of myself. Looking back, I can now see that being a leader is not as difficult as I initially imagined. I have a bad tendency to sell myself short and in the past this has affected my self-confidence, but this expedition showed me that I have the determination to achieve whatever I want. I now know that I have the grit to be a leader in my everyday life. I need to treat leadership as I did on the trail. A necessary action to achieve a certain goal. If I can be a leader in the adverse conditions we faced on the trail, there is no reason that I can’t be a leader every day.

The goals that I have for myself will require a great deal of leadership to realize. In the past, I have let my fear of failure hold me back from reaching my full potential, but I now know that I am headed in the right direction to eliminate that fear. This trip pushed me outside my comfort zone and forcefully showed me that I can do so much more if I put my mind to it. I will continue to push myself outside my comfort zone and use my confidence as a leader to achieve my goals.

This new understanding of my own leadership ability has shown me that being proactive as a leader can help to eliminate many of the pitfalls that would previously slow me down from achieving my goals. The High Sierra Leadership Expedition has given me the confidence to go out and achieve my goals rather than wait around and hope they happen. Life on the trail showed me that everything worth achieving is not given freely; every mile, every view, every friendship takes effort and when it comes to being a leader, contrary to popular belief, it is the effort that counts.

STEP Reflection: EMT-Basic Training

My STEP Signature project was to further my medical knowledge through an EMT Basic Training course.  The course was made up of lecture, lab, and practical components.  I attended four hour classes twice a week that contained both the lecture and lab portions of the class.  I also had the great opportunity of completing 24 hours of the practical portion of the course.  Often called “ride time,” I was able to ride on an ambulance and perform basic hands on patient care under the supervision of paramedics.  I even got to go on seven 911 calls while doing 12 hours of ride time at LifeCare Ambulance in Lorain, OH.

Entering into EMT-Basic training I assumed that the job would be very fast paced and exhilarating; in some ways I was right but I was also wrong in others.  I discovered that working in the prehospital setting in the medical field led to exposure to high intensity/ high stress situations mixed with periods of laid back downtime in between calls.  I learned that this persistent fluctuation of physical and mental strain on the body can cause quite a toll on the body. Ultimately, completing ride time in Lorain really opened up my eyes as to how some people live and had the largest impact on me.  I realized that I’ve been raised in a bubble and there is a large amount of people living in all kinds of living situations out in the world, some of which seem unfit for humans.  It was through this realization that I came to the conclusion that I have been given many opportunities and blessings, and that it is my duty to use these advantages to enrich the lives of others.

The most crucial experience for my STEP project that helped change assumptions and my view of the world was my first shift with LifeCare Ambulance in Lorain, OH. I signed myself up for an 8 hour shift not exactly knowing what to expect when entering into the day.  I arrived at the station and was surprised to find that inside was a living space much like you would find in a typical home in addition to the truck bays.  This included a full kitchen and living room area with a television and gaming consoles. Upon meeting Katie and Dan, the paramedics I would be shadowing, I was told about how laid back it is at the station.  It wasn’t until after my first call when I returned to the station to find employees cooking lunch and telling stories that I realized my assumption about the constant fast tempo of the prehospital setting was wrong.

On my third run with Dan and Katie, we were dispatched to a reported “fall.”  We arrived at a run down house with over grown weeds in the front.  It isn’t common for paramedics to knock before coming in which didn’t matter because all there seemed to be was a screen door with the front door sitting off the hinges.  I went to use the railing to get up the steps and it wobbled upon placing my hand on it.  We found the patient in a little back bedroom in a very unnatural position halfway of the bed.  Upon taking a history we find that the “fall” is really lower back pain that was hindering movement.  The paramedic asked for my assistance as we tried to put the patient in a more suitable position. The patient was clearly in pain and was in need of transport to the hospital for further medical attention.

Upon suggestion of transport the young patient seemed to grow slightly distressed, stating how she wasn’t sure if her family would be able to afford the cost of transportation and hospital visit.  The paramedics strongly urged her to go to the hospital and provided comfort by telling the patient they me eligible for reduced medical bills. Ultimately, the patient agreed and the squad transported her to the hospital.  When I asked how common that situation is I was told that with Lorain being a lower income community that has many dependents on welfare it is a pretty common issue.

This call affected me greatly.  It opened my eyes to the fact that some people in this world have to question if their health and quality of life is within their budget.  I come from a community that does not have the same worries as many do in Lorain, so this experience really caught me off guard.  It is for this reason that my view of the world has been shifted.  I use to be in the camp of health care was a privilege but now I believe health care should be considered a human right.  It just doesn’t seem right to me that some people may not be able to be treated for their physical ailments due to their financial wellness.

It is this realization and transformation that will play a very crucial role in my development as a health care professional.  In viewing health care as a human right I will work to make it more accessible to all people.  It has given me a newfound drive to succeed and work hard in order to harness my blessings and opportunities to enrich the lives of others.  It has reinforced my desire to be a future doctor but has changed my reasons. Ultimately, this experience has helped to make clear my path and given me true purpose behind my goals.

Backpacking Reflection

Pacific Coast and High Sierra Backpacking Leadership Expedition

Clare Coons

For my STEP project, I spent 24 days backpacking in California through approximately 170 miles with a purpose to improve my leadership, teamwork, and problem solving skills.  Each day one or two people would be a Leader of the Day where they would make the decisions for the day and delegate out tasks.  Every day we would reflect over the day such as the positives and negatives.

First and foremost, before going on my Backpacking Leadership Expedition, I was not quite sure what kind of leader I was.  In the past, I had been in various leadership position, but none where I was making a majority of the decisions.  Through this trip, I learned what kind of leader and follower I am.  I became more aware of what my strengths and weaknesses are in both positions as a leader and follower.  Through experiences and leadership topic lessons, I learned that leadership can be looked at in many different ways.  I learned that I approach leadership in a less assertive way, which can be seen as different and sometimes in a negative way.  My leadership style can be described as leading by example.  I act the way I want others in the group to perform such as always trying to help others out.   My leadership style relies on having a relationship of respect between the leader and the group.  Some of the weaknesses of my leadership were being decisive, not being assertive, and being prepared.  As a follower, I am always willing to help, but at times I can be very quiet and to myself.  I learned how to be apart of a team and encourage each other while pushing each other to our very best.  I also learned that it is important to understand your followers.  Many people can have different motivations and therefore different leadership styles are required.  

Furthermore, not only did I learn about myself but also my view of the world transformed.  I gained a large appreciation for just life in general and all the things I have in the front country.  Being in the backcountry showed me how much I take for grantite.  I learned to live simply and take care of myself in a harsh environment.  My appreciation for the people and the world around me grew and I learned to live more in the moment.  I learned that everything I did was vital for survival.  

One of the key factors during my trip that led to transformation was the aspect of leader of the day.  Through this component of the trip, I was able to challenge myself and leave my comfort zone.  One of the things I realized this trip was that one of the major ways to learn is to push yourself to do things outside of your comfort zone.  Backpacking is something that cannot be understood by reading but only by experience.  As leader of the day, I had to make many decisions throughout the day for the group.  Many of the decisions included helping improve efficiency in the morning, deciding when to take breaks, assigning roles, and solving issues when they arose such as stream crossings and injuries.  When in the moment decisions came up, problem solving skills were needed to think through the situations and make the best choice for the group.  Many of the problems encountered could not be planned for.  Leading a group was definitely out of my comfort zone and because of it I learned a lot about myself.  I learned how I act when I am put in a leadership positions and what my strengths and weaknesses are as a leader.  
Moreover, another key aspect that lead to my transformation was our end of the day reflections.  At the end of the day, we would have a debrief discussion about how the day went.  We usually started out with shout outs and appreciations, which included positive aspects of the day.  Then we would move on to a question where we would share the positives and negatives of the day.  We were able to share what we thought well and what didn’t go well, while also hearing what other people thought of the day.  This aspect allowed us to hear other opinions, while also reflecting on the day as a whole and learning from the day.  The last aspect of our day would be giving feedback to the leader of the day.  The leader of the day part of the trip allowed for the group to see different types of leadership style. I was able to see how others approached different situations to create a holistic idea of what I believed was the best type of leadership.  The trip as a whole also allowed for a lot of time to think and reflect on everything.  As well, I kept a journal to collect my thoughts about the day.  
Lastly, the physical challenge and simplicity of living out of a backpack helped complete my STEP experience.  A lot of our time was spent hiking changing terrain with ups and downs.  The uphill was a physical and mental challenge where I learned to be mentally strong.  I had to push myself passed a point of comfort.  As a part of the team, even when I was tired I tried to motivate others because I learned that having a negative attitude and self pitting yourself will not help accomplish anything.
My backpacking leadership expedition has been very valuable for my life in many ways personally and professionally. I can transfer many of the ideas and lessons acquired in the backcountry to the front country.  One of the skills that will be useful in life is the hard work mentality that goes along with backpacking.  Backpacking is difficult and at many times requires that a person is mentally strong.  From backpacking, I learned that a person is only as strong as their mind and that how people view situations makes a huge difference on how they will perform.  I can transfer that into my everyday life and try to keep a positive attitude on situations to make the best out of them.  Another skill that transferred into my everyday life is the idea of taking care of myself and gaining organizational skills.  For about three weeks, I lived out of a backpack and carried everything I had on my back.  With this simple but rough life style, I learned how to take care of myself and stay organized in my backpack.  
Finally, learning about my leadership style will greatly benefit me in my future goals.  I want to become a dentist and own or be a part of a small practice.  As a dentist, I will be a leader to assistants and other workers.  While leading the group on the trip, I was able to learn my strengths and weaknesses as a leader.  In my future goals, I will be able to improve my leadership style while using my strengths to my advantage.  I will also be able to apply different types of leadership to my own style to create the best vision as possible.  I also learned how to be a contributing and effective team member.  Overall, my STEP experience really transformed the way I view myself as a leader and follower; I will be able to use these experiences to reach my future goals.  I am so grateful to be able to have had this experience and will never forget the incredible journey.