Parent Perspective: Bidding Farewell for 81 Days


Over the course of a year, we see many students on courses ranging in length from 8 to 22 days. At the Colorado Outward Bound School they backpack through the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains, summit peaks, squeeze through slot canyons and paddle through world-class waters in the Utah backcountry. They learn rock climbing skills, camp craft, how to work as a team – and they discover there is more in them than they know.

Among the thousands of students we see each year, there is an elite class who undertake the ultimate grueling and rewarding rite of passage: the semester course. Whether it’s the 50-day Southwest Leadership Semester or the 81-day Rockies to Ecuador Leadership Semester, these longer courses combine multi-element itineraries with access to extraordinary landscapes.

Andes Mountain Climbing in Ecuador

High above the clouds on the final expedition, students climb volcanoes over 16,000′ in the Ecuadorian Andes. Photo by Nicholas Dean Vincent.

We recently had about 20 students on our fall Rockies to Ecuador Leadership Semester, and I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the parents to get her perspective on the experience – because these courses not only challenge our students, but their families as well.

Tell us a little bit about why you and your son chose Outward Bound?

After high school, James had spent ten months studying in China. While he was there, he expressed a strong interest in going to India to an ashram. I told him he needed to come home, and if he wanted to travel, he should see the United States. I began looking into Outward Bound semester courses and suggested that as a possibility. When he returned in August, we looked at all the semester offerings/leadership courses on-line. 

James is an alum of North Carolina Outward Bound School. He took a backpacking/climbing course when he was 14 for 10 days. It was one of the best experiences he had had, but he refused to do another one after that because he said there would never be a better group than the one he had been with. We are so happy that he changed his mind! 

We also looked at NOLS courses, but we liked the “feel” and the offerings of the Outward Bound courses much more and knew Outward Bound to be “tried and true.” Basically, it looked like an awesome course, with so much diversity in the places visited, and the skills learned were things that excited James. 

Colorado Rocky Mountain Climbing

Climbing a ridge line in the Colorado Rockies. Photo by Mike Lewis.

What did he (and you!) do to prepare for course?

I shopped and shopped and shopped! The supply list was exhaustive but necessary, due to all the different weather conditions/extremes they would be experiencing, in addition to the different activities he would be participating in. Because we did not have specialty stores on Long Island, I mostly shopped Zappos and Amazon. Zappos was great because of their free return policy. I may have paid more using their site, but they had almost everything he needed, along with reviews. I used a few other sites to get better pricing on some items though. I must say that I did incur some debt from all of the equipment/gear/clothing. It was expensive, and I really was not prepared for that cost. The only saving grace is that I know he won’t grow out of it, and I hope he will be using the stuff in the future.

James went to the gym, went hiking, and wore a lead vest and his boots to break them in and to strengthen his back for the backpack weight. He also did slacklining, meditation, walking, and yoga daily.

As a parent, what’s it like in that moment, dropping your kid off at the airport/train station/etc., knowing they are about to embark upon this journey?

It was much easier than dropping James off at the airport to leave for China! It was bittersweet. I was so excited for James, knowing that he was going to embark on a new adventure and love it, but was also a bit sad to be losing my buddy; and his little sister was sad because she and James are very close, and he is awesome with her. I really tried to put it in the perspective of:  he is going away for a semester at college.  Although with college, there would be visits and more contact. I had faith in the program and the mission, and we had lived without James for 10 months while he was in China. This was a much shorter time, and I knew he would be home for the holidays and his birthday. Originally, I told him he was coming home for Thanksgiving! We allowed James to extend his stay in Quito for 8 days, after the trip ended, so he was away for basically 90 days by the time we saw him at the airport. He really enjoyed the extended stay and was more than ready to come home at that point!

Rockies to Ecuador Gap Year Semester

Preparing breakfast at sunrise. Meal prep and camp craft are just a few of the skills students develop while on course. Photo by Angela Henderson.

What worried you most? Does that still worry you?

I worried that he would get hurt. That is something a parent always worries about.

I do worry about the adjustment period now. I think it will be hard to adjust from living in a group dynamic (big one) to coming home and not necessarily having people/friends who can relate. It was good to be part of something that everyone was interested in. There are not that many people like minded living here (the active, adventurous, outdoorsy types), although I do believe two of the boys do live in NY. I hope that that can help and that they can see each other. 

I think part of this worry comes from seeing how bonded the group was when we visited them in Denver [we hosted a potluck dinner at HQ when the students had completed the Colorado and Utah sections of the course and were flying to Ecuador; many of the parents joined us for dinner]. I also think it was great that Mike Lewis, the Course Director, addressed this issue of adjustment on the website, for the students and the instructors. I am trying to heed his advice, but it isn’t always easy!

I know James had an adjustment period coming back from China, that I wasn’t prepared for. I am sure that some parents didn’t think about that part and at least are prepared for what might happen/what the students might be feeling. Mike was great about that all along, advising us what students might be thinking/feeling at certain times on course. It gave the parents food for thought and also possible worry at times! I think it is hard when people make big changes in their lives and coming home, everything is still the same, but that could also be comforting.

I really believe that Outward Bound has been an extremely positive experience, and James is happy being home.

What were you hoping he’d get out of this experience?

Our ultimate hope and wish is that he gets a job out of this experience! I think he has gotten so much more than he or we ever expected; an experience of a lifetime; awesome friends forever. He worked a lot on his goals, one of which includes working on his friend’s website for a career.

What was your impression when you were able to visit him mid-course in Denver?

Visiting James mid-course in Denver was incredible and so much more rewarding than I had anticipated. Although seeing James was the biggest reward, meeting the incredible staff and students and getting a chance to get to know them a bit was so wonderful. We were so impressed with this group of young people, and it really made us feel a part of the course in a big way. After meeting everyone, I was just so at ease and so happy for James to be sharing this time and experience with them. I didn’t worry at all after the dinner and the “giving thanks” and slideshow, because I knew he was in good hands with incredible instructors, support staff, and caring, bonded friends. 

The students were thoughtful and intelligent and actually wanted to engage us in stories and adventures with James as well as tell us a bit about themselves. I especially enjoyed speaking with Erika, one of the logistics coordinators who also spent a bit of time on the course with the students. I was also impressed with Ty Guarino. James told me that everyone from Outward Bound was amazing. James mentioned Vince, Matt Olsen and Steve Creech as being awesome people! 

Has anything surprised you about his experience? About yours?

I never thought or intended that I would feel so much a part of this journey and that I would have a passion inside me for this experience! This is mostly due to meeting the group at the Colorado Outward Bound School dinner and being a part of the private Facebook group. It was nice to “live it” from afar without all the challenges they had to endure!

Any survival tips for parents who are bidding their kid(s) farewell for 81 days?

Try to think of it as a semester away at a faraway school you can’t visit. What your son/daughter will be learning and doing will be so much more valuable than what they would be learning/doing in a college classroom and dorm room. He/She will make friends for life with much stronger bonds than can be made with a college roommate, especially within that time frame. They will come back with life experiences and leadership skills that can’t be taught in a classroom. They will grow exponentially and accomplish things they never thought they could or would!

Have you, as parents, discovered anything new in yourselves through this experience with Outward Bound?

As I said before, I never thought I would feel the passion I felt for James’s experience or feel that I could be a part of it. I am so thankful that Outward Bound exists and offers this incredible experience, Rockies to Ecuador. If I am feeling just a small part of the experience, I can’t even imagine how James is feeling and the group. I can only imagine that there were some painful goodbyes, tears, and big hugs. In looking at Facebook posts, it appears everyone is happy to be home but they are also missing their buddies.