Ariel Engelman was looking for a break from city life and professional theater work in Providence, R.I. Zack Huckstep, a former Marine, wants to become a state wildlife enforcement trooper.
Both gravitated to the outdoor skills and leadership program at the University of Alaska Southeast.
The nine-month, 30-credit certificate program combines numerous short practical outdoor courses, such as sea kayaking and backpacking, with courses in philosophy and communication, and electives in the humanities and sciences.
The flexibility attracted Huckstep, 24, who holds an associate degree from Olympic College in Bremerton, Wash., and is working toward a bachelor's degree in marine biology from UAS. He also plans to earn certificates in law enforcement and in outdoor skills and leadership.
Engelman, 20, is taking a year off from her theater studies at Brown University in Providence, where she also works with the professional Trinity Repertory Company.
Kevin Krein, an assistant professor of philosophy who directs the program and helped found it, said he was excited by a program that melds academic courses and outdoor skills.
Engelman said she looked at a lot of one-year outdoor programs, but UAS's had the most academics.
"For me, personally, literature and philosophy have really enhanced my experiences outside," Krein said.
"Our idea is that professionals in the field ... should have at least a reasonable grasp of what writers and philosophers and environmental scientists and historians have to say about the activities they participate in," he said.
Krein wants students to look critically at their ideas about nature rather than just buy in to a view that's the product of 19th century Romanticism.
Now in its fourth year, the program has eight full-time students and two who are taking the courses over several years. The program accepts about a quarter of its applicants, Krein said.
Many of its students are enrolled in bachelor-degree programs as well. Some may use the certificate as a springboard to entry-level jobs as wilderness tour guides. Others just want to improve their outdoor skills for their own sake.
About 200 students not in the program take the outdoor courses to meet physical education requirements.
For more about the program, see: http://www.uas.alaska.edu/ods
In Krein's one-credit backcountry skiing and snowboarding course, students spend two days in the classroom learning about equipment and safety. They're in the field for three days, skiing during the day and talking at night. Krein also expects the students to read Dolores LaChapelle's book on deep powder snow.
The courses generally use the mountains and snowfields around Juneau as their campus. Students pay extra fees ranging up to $250 for each outdoor course to cover transportation and the additional instructors needed to keep a small student-to-teacher ratio. No one has been seriously injured in the program, Krein said.
Instructor Peter Carter said he was impressed when students on a backcountry trip, on their own initiative, organized a mock medical emergency, improvised a litter from a poncho and willow branches, and carried a person out of thick woods.
Students and instructors get to know each other better in such courses than in the usual classroom, they said.
"Instead of instructor-student, you're on a level playing field," Engelman said.
Huckstep compared it to the humps - what civilians call hikes - he took as a Marine, in which they would help each other.
A student might have a disagreement with another student in the classroom, but after an hour the class scatters. In an outdoor class, the students must rely on each other, so they have to work out differences.
Disgruntled students can't just walk off the mountain, Huckstep said.
"Especially if they have the stove and you have the food," Engelman added.
"I'm often struck by how easy it must be to teach a class and not actually have to spend the next two days with students," Krein said. "At the same time, I think it is really special."
"Certainly the tears we see are different," Carter said. "Our tears are from physical challenges. With the other professors, the grades aren't good enough."
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.