By Sarah Welsh
City on a Hill Press Reporter
A class with the Sierra Institute is not your normal class. This 30-year-old program, offered to UC Santa Cruz students through Humboldt State, takes learning out of the classroom and into the wilderness.
At the quarterly meeting on Monday night, the camaraderie was palpable. The meeting, which included a locally-grown, home-cooked meal, brought together former participants as well as people interested in the program.
Since the late 1970s, the Sierra Institute has been offering classes in the wilderness for small groups of students. Participants earn a quarter’s worth of transferable credit by backpacking in places like Patagonia and the California backcountry for approximately nine weeks.
“The compelling thing is the synergistic effect of three major components besides the academics,” said Skye Leone, former director of the program. “Students are in unbroken natural environments. They’re with a group of like-minded students, so it becomes a close-knit community. And we offer an unbroken chunk of time where you’re living out of your backpack.”
According to Leone, these components make for an unforgettable and unparalleled educational experience.
The program is not funded by the university, so it is dependent on its participants.
“The tuition is roughly the same as a quarter at UCSC. But if you add up everything, it’s cheaper than a quarter here because you’re living out of your backpack,” Leone said.
While hiking in the wilderness, students discuss topics such as sustainability and nature philosophy.
“Academics come in different flavors. When we’re learning about the outdoors, we tend to learn best when we’re outdoors. Often people report that they learn more in that one quarter than they do all year at UCSC,” he said.
The next program begins April 1 and runs through June 1. The class, titled “California Wilderness: Nature, Philosophy, Religion & Ecopsychology,” is taught by Walker Abel, co-director of the Sierra Institute.
This program will explore the questions: what are humans, what is nature, what is their relationship? It begins in Death Valley, followed by a trip to Big Sur, the Yolla Bolly Mountains, and finishes on the Lost Coast, one of the few remaining wild stretches of Pacific shoreline. Students who participate earn 15 credits.
“It’s a little bit like summer camp,” Abel said. “But it’s school. It combines an immersion in the natural world. It’s for anyone who wants a real immersion in the wilderness.”
Other programs take students to Patagonia, Guatemala, Alaska, Baja California, and Hawaii, as well as other places.
A trip with the Sierra Institute is not “for the faint of heart,” Leone said.
In Patagonia, for example, it’s half a day’s journey by horseback to get cell phone reception. And the backpacking element of the program is often physically demanding.
At the meeting, students shared their experiences, many describing the program as “life-changing” and “amazing.” The energy in the room was very positive, and students were eager to participate in the program for the first time, or for a second or third time.
Damien Young, a fourth-year psychology major, had one word for his experience.
“Great,” he said.
The program he attended in the California wilderness “emphasized sustainability and purposeful living.”
Bryce Winter, UCSC graduate and teaching assistant for the program, emphasized the idea of deepening an understanding of the world around humans, and humans’ relationship with the world and each other. He said the Sierra Institute provides this understanding to its participants.
“I see the Sierra Institute as an opportunity for students to answer the question ‘What is my ecological consciousness?’” Winter said. “It’s up to each individual recognizing that we have to take care of the earth and take care of ourselves. It’s all intertwined.”
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