Southwestern Community College has started a new degree program whose graduates will likely become the leaders in the growing field of wilderness therapy.
The course work was designed in collaboration with area wilderness therapy providers such as Woodson Wilderness Challenge, Second Nature Blue Ridge, Phoenix Outdoors and others.
“We have a lot of interns in the field working with different organizations through our Outdoor Leadership program,” said Paul Wolf, the director of SCC’s Outdoor Leadership program. “And the message we kept hearing from these groups was that their biggest challenge was to get qualified staff and be able to keep them.”
Wolf is excited and enthused about the program, which began this fall semester and requires 18 semester-hour credits.
It’s been a two-year journey from brainstorming sessions to opening the doors to Wilderness Therapy students this fall. The journey began with meetings with Deb Klavohn, dean of health sciences at SCC. Then SCC had to get permission from the North Carolina Board of Community Colleges.
“We were granted permission last summer,” Wolf said.
A shift in direction
Wolf said wilderness therapy has had a major shift in direction since its early boot camp mindset.
Tragedies such as the ones at the Challenger Foundation in 1990 — where two teenagers died during separate wilderness survival trips — and the death of Aaron Bacon in 1994 while enrolled in a North Star Expeditions program made the industry slow down and take a second look. While “natural consequences” — i.e. if you don’t make a dry shelter and it rains, you get wet — are still a primary tenant of wilderness therapy, the industry has moved to an “empowerment model” rather than a punishment model.
He said that most of today’s wilderness therapy programs employ professional therapists or psychologists with graduate degrees. However, these therapists don’t march every step with participants, so the need for highly skilled field instructors is paramount to the success of the program and the safety of the participants.
SCC’s Wilderness Therapy program
A wilderness therapy field instructor wears many hats. That person is the trail boss to get from point A to point B. The field instructor has to have primitive living skills to ensure the group is prepared for whatever type of trail or weather conditions it encounters. Excellent orienteering and map-reading skills are mandatory. Plus, the field instructor is the first responder in any medical emergency and, for the majority of the trip, camp counselor.
Wolf has designed a diverse yet focused program to guarantee that SCC Wilderness Therapy graduates have what it takes to be competent field instructors and valued wilderness therapy employees. Courses in the program include Intro to Wilderness Therapy, Wilderness Therapeutic Models, Methods of Experiential Education, Primitive Living Skills as well as Land-Based and Water-Based Activities. The two courses offered this fall are Intro to Wilderness Therapy and Primitive Living Skills. Wolf said there were nine students in each class.
Wolf, who teaches most of the classes, has a bachelor’s degree with a double major in psychology and environmental studies from Mankato State University in Minnesota and a master’s in educational administration from Western Carolina University. He has years of experience in outdoor leadership and education including seven years with the Voyager Outward Bound School in the Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota. He was also coordinator of the Action Learning Programs at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Wolf also uses adjunct professors such as Jonathan Bryant, director of NOC’s wilderness medicine department, and Stephan Hart, who is a NOC instructor specializing in wild foods and medicinal plants.
A good fit
Wolf said the Wilderness Therapy program was a great fit and addition to SCC’s Outdoor learning Program.
“I would recommend an Outdoor Leadership degree for someone just out of high school,” Wolf said. “But the Wilderness Therapy certificate is a great add-on for someone who already has a degree or experience in outdoor learning.”
And it’s a great fit in the overall mission of community colleges. “This is something that is career-ready and specific. It was designed to meet industry needs and there are employers out there waiting,” Wolf said.
What is wilderness therapy?
Wilderness therapy — sometimes referred to as outdoor education or adventure-based therapy — are outdoor programs intended to be therapeutic in nature. They may simply self-identify as therapeutic or may offer more traditional psychotherapy in a wilderness environment.