Eight Brevard College students recently completed a 21-day immersion expedition canvassing the mountains of Western North Carolina. The trip, the culmination of the Immersion Semester for Brevard College’s Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education (WLEE) major, included journeys through Linville Gorge, Table Rock, Middle Prong Wilderness, Shining Rock Wilderness and Pisgah National Forest.
Since the start of the Fall semester at Brevard College in August, the eight students prepared for the expedition through six interrelated courses including the completion of a Wilderness First Responder certification. The preparation eventually focused on the expedition itself, planning the route and logistics of a 21-day trip in the wilderness.
The students began their expedition with a backpacking and climbing trip to Linville Gorge. After being transported back to the Pisgah National Forest area, backpacking followed for the remainder of the 21 days. In total, the students completed roughly 90 miles of hiking with significant elevation gains upwards of 1,700 feet per day and reaching altitudes over 6,000 feet.
Weather conditions proved to be a major challenge from the group. Due to the remnants of hurricanes reaching the Carolinas, heavy rain came on two different instances. Moreover, the temperature varied tremendously from highs in the 80s to lows below freezing with wind chills under zero degrees.
Each student carried a backpack with an average weight of 50 pounds. Food drops were utilized every few days with storage required within a bear canister that created challenges in rationing to go along with creative menu items.
In today’s modern society, the thought of being without a smartphone or computer for 21 days is unthinkable to many. However, the students went the entire expedition with just one smartphone packed for emergency purposes and one phone call made – a birthday call for a student to her mother back home.
The Immersion Semester and the 21-day expedition were conducted with COVID-19 safety as a priority. The first 14 days of the expedition were treated as a quarantine with students remaining socially distant and wearing masks if within six feet. Individual tents were utilized for sleeping purposes.
The final stretch of the expedition went from Middle Prong Wilderness into Shining Rock Wilderness through the Turkey Pen area and eventually to the Estatoe trail in Brevard. The students hiked to the bike path along North Broad Street until approaching the Brevard College campus. The final steps of the 21-day adventure brought the group to the Bell Tower at the center of campus where the students were able to reflect on their journey while greeted by a welcoming party of members from the Brevard College community.
“Immersion is hard,” said Emily Massing, a senior from Jacksonville, North Carolina. “It will challenge you physically and mentally. But that’s the glory about it – if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. Being in Immersion has helped me grow in and out of class. It helped me acknowledge things in myself to improve on over time as well as find my strengths.”
Assistant WLEE Professor Ryan DeGarmo was the faculty member responsible for the Fall 2020 Immersion Semester and was present with the students for the first 18 days of the expedition before leaving the group unaccompanied for the final three days. DeGarmo saw firsthand the tremendous personal growth resulting from the students’ experience.
“Watching the students push through adversity and unforeseen situations was very rewarding,” said DeGarmo. “They were able to persevere through many challenges, then walk onto campus with smiles on their faces and looking like a well-oiled machine.”
Dr. Jennifer Kafsky, WLEE Professor and Chair of the Experiential Education Division at Brevard College, sees the immersion semester which culminates with the 21-day expedition as an indispensable experience for the students.
“The immersion is absolutely vital in terms of building self-awareness and developing leadership, teaching and life skills,” said Dr. Kafsky. “It is a very profound catalyst for the growth of our students.”
WLEE students have gone on to a wide spectrum of leadership-oriented careers following graduation from Brevard College. Alumni have worked in outdoor programs for colleges and high schools or in outdoor education, environmental education or wilderness therapy programs. Graduates have also entered the outdoor industry whether in tours, guiding, mountain biking, climbing or retail. The degree, with its experiential leadership, collaboration and critical thinking components, is also highly translatable to other pursuits that require effective leadership skills as graduates have affirmed through their pursuit of law, medicine, higher education, science or business.