Picture your past semester at college. Now imagine those weeks without your class schedule, extracurricular activities and game days. Next, subtract your electronics: yes, that means no iPhone, laptop, Facebook or television. Then step out of your dorm, leave your campus and walk away from any sort of urban setting.
How does that picture look to you?
This is what the past semester was like for twelve St. Lawrence University students participating in the Adirondack Semester program.
These students study, eat, sleep and work in their Arcadia yurt community on Lake Massawepie in the North Country of the Adirondack Mountains for the entire fall semester before returning to their New York campus come spring.
While the program does emphasize a return to a simpler lifestyle and interaction with nature, the semester is not exclusively about hiking trips or ‘living green.’ In fact, the primary focus of the Adirondack Semester is an education of the mind and of the self. The program’s mission statement is: “to enable students to study nature and human relationships with nature through academic classes enriched by direct experience.”
Cathy Shrady, director of the Adirondack Semester, calls her work very satisfying. The program has seen an increase of interest over the past decade. Shrady attributes this heightened popularity to growing awareness of environmental issues and a trend in student’s questioning the impact of living a fast-paced, plugged-in lifestyle.
I know coming out of this semester the power of a long walk in the woods, the nourishment of hearty food and the love of community from complete strangers
“The point of the program is to get students to think about questions of human intervention, climate change and social injustice. The semester also makes you examine how we live as a society and the role technology plays in our lives, like ‘how much do I really need Facebook or the Internet?’ It also makes you think of the material lifestyle and ask, ‘how much do I need to be happy?’” Shrady said.
Away from everything, but still in class
While each day of the Adirondack Semester has a varied schedule, the standard activities include roughly three hours of class, free time for canoeing or woodworking, homework and journal writing, as well as cooking and sharing a nightly meal.
In addition to outdoor skills like hiking and canoeing, students enroll in a full schedule of classes.
Shrady teaches a class called “Knowing Nature,” which can be considered a hybrid of geology and philosophy. The class analyzes how different people, ranging from Western scientists to indigenous tribes, studied nature.
According to Shrady, the students involved in the program are different ages and from diverse backgrounds, with many having an interest in environmental study. However, Shrady is quick to point out that the selection process primarily focuses on the student’s genuine enthusiasm for the program.
“Some students are those whom you would immediately guess would choose to get involved, meaning they have had lots of prior experience in nature, hiking etc. There are also those with very little experience in the outdoors and are actually afraid but wanted to learn something new to see what it’s like to live disconnected,” she said.
The students who choose to apply to the program make a similar commitment to those who study abroad. Both groups experience life in a foreign environment, a desire to challenge their independence and see their location as beneficial to their studies.
“As a conservation biology major, every aspect of this semester applies to my college work. I know coming out of this semester the power of a long walk in the woods, the nourishment of hearty food and the love of community from complete strangers,” said junior Caitlin Ward.
Unlike study abroad students however, the Adirondack Semester participants are not only spending months away from friends, clubs, teams and an established life on campus, but are eradicating all forms of communication, with the exception of handwritten letters. The students cannot stay up-to-date on current events or social happenings by logging onto the Internet, or call family when feeling homesick.
While the students enjoy receiving ‘snail-mail,’ Shrady attributes the lack of outside awareness to building the community of the group.
“Students are living in a very, very different environment. Each group creates their own culture and within reason they make decisions about things. The students develop very close relationships with each other and cook for each other. In fact, cooking becomes a gift you give to the community,” Shrady said.
The students interviewed cite this intense sense of community as one of the best parts of the semester. In fact, many reference their affinity for a ‘home-cooked meal’ and dread returning back to the dining hall and nights of eating dinner with only a textbook as company.
“I love the meal times. We sit down together three times a day for a meal and it’s just like a family dinner with everyone passing food around. We laugh, bicker and debate and it really makes this place feel like home,” said Madeline Fones, a junior conservation biology student.
In addition to adjusting their diets, students are wary losing the sense of themselves and nature that they have found over the past months in the Adirondacks.
“I’m pretty nervous about going back to typical campus life…I know I’ll have to readjust to the frantic pace of classes, work and organizations. It will also be frustrating to not spend as much time outdoors. At the same time, it’s exciting to think about applying the things I’ve learned here to how I live my life in the rush of modern society,” Annalise Grueter, a senior English major, said.
The program attempts to ease the transition back to collegiate life by allowing students visit campus over Fall Break and organizing internships in the local community in the weeks after Thanksgiving.
Upon returning to campus, the students return to their previous groups of friends, but continue to support the program. Shrady said last year all of the Adirondack Semester alumni still studying at St. Lawrence volunteered to speak at information sessions and the most effective publicity for the program has been word-of-mouth.
“I thought when else could I have an opportunity like this in my life? Why not take advantage of the most our school has to offer?” Sam Schue, a sophomore biology major, said. “It seemed almost dumb not to and so I went for it and have loved it.”
Powered by Facebook Comments