Voyageur Outward Bound: Helping Students Find True Grit

With the best of intentions, many 21st century parents have worked hard to shield their children from pain, discomfort and struggle. In part, with the advent of 24/7 news programs like CNN, parents are bombarded by the risks and perils facing their precious offspring and have reacted by creating organized sports and group activities, filling downtime to ensure safety and security. The flipside of such structure is that many kids today have little opportunity to develop problem-solving skills, grit or perseverance, skills that are essential to coping with life. Sadly, when these kids encounter challenges with relationships, academics, drugs, or alcohol, many lack the skills and experience to move through to the other side.

Minnesota’s Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS) has been dedicated to building grit and perseverance through its wilderness courses for over 50 years. Using the challenges in the wilderness as a teaching tool, VOBS courses take place in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), on the Superior Hiking Trail, on Lake Superior, and in the Big Bend National Park region of southern Texas. While their classic courses are open to all students age 12 and over, VOBS is one of two Outward Bound Schools in the country to offer the Intercept Expeditions for struggling teens/young adults age 14- 21. These courses are offered in both the BWCA and Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Intercept Expeditions are geared towards students who are struggling with low self image, engaging in potentially risky behaviors and/or not living up to their potential. Intercept Expeditions are designed to redirect students who struggle with poor performance at school, lack of motivation, poor decision making skills, misuse of technology, conflict within the family, promiscuity, and/or experimentation with drugs and alcohol.

“I instruct Intercept programs because I was pretty much your typical Intercept kid. I lied, was getting in trouble, had too much free time, not enough responsibility and hung out with some of the wrong people that influenced my judgments/decision making. I get the typical Intercept kid. I want to help them make the same change Outward Bound helped me make at age 17 when I did a course.” – Bud, instructor

The typical Intercept applicant is often, not always, less motivated to attend Outward Bound than the typical classic course applicant. Parents tend to play a larger role in getting an Intercept student signed up for an Outward Bound course but the student must show some intrinsic motivation to participate.

Intercept courses provide a higher level of individualized attention. The Intercept Expedition instructors will spend more time addressing each student’s specific problem behaviors and work with them to create short and long term goals to improve their relationships with their family and community at home. Intercept courses also require parents to participate through a workbook plus a 3-day Family Seminar at course end to support the student’s growth, learning and successful transition after the course.

The 28- or 50-day Intercept Expeditions offer a path to resolve destructive behaviors as well as to develop positive decision-making skills, strengthen interpersonal relationships and cultivate a positive self image. Course activities are designed to strengthen motivation, goal-setting, communication, emotional intelligence and inner confidence as instructors transfer increased responsibility to the students.

“The outcomes I generally see from students on Intercept courses include improved self-reliance and self-esteem, time management skills, a renewed sense of courage and tenacity in tackling the problems that were left behind at the beginning of course. They learn to see possibilities where there was once a lack of awareness or a lack of confidence, and they leave course with a desire to improve overall, to continue learning and growing as a person.” – Miah, instructor

Intercept Program Manager Nina Wray explains, “Intercept courses are designed to connect actions with consequences and equip students with the tools that can help them navigate their lives with a greater sense of responsibility and self respect. Our goal is to create a clear and thoughtful transition plan during the Family Seminar that helps each family member commit to a set of agreements that will guide actions and behaviors in the future.”

Due to the intensity of the program and the whole family involvement, the application process is more extensive. VOBS asks for more information from the parents, therapists, student, and at times, third party references. There is a limit of 7-10 students on each Intercept Expedition with two adult, highly trained instructors. Intercept is not therapy—there are no therapists on staff.

“Let’s say the task is to get a 75-lb aluminum canoe through a swamp. The swamp does not respond to anger. The canoe is nearly indestructible. The task appears to be a physical challenge, but is actually a mental challenge. Facing frustration, working through anger, and asking for help are on this swamp’s agenda. Negative tools and habits have no effect on the swamp. It cannot be lied to or manipulated. It does not respond to complaints. It can’t be cheated, and most of all, it can’t be ignored.

This makes it sound like the swamp is the ideal instructor. However, we know that most learning does not happen simply through experience, but through reflecting upon experience. VOBS instructors create spaces for reflection and help draw connections between the swamp and life at home. Metaphor is a powerful tool we use for building transference. What is your swamp? What gets you through your swamp? Instructors share positive tools and habits, focusing on communication, self-control, and conflict resolution. Each day offers new opportunities to replace old habits with new ones.

But we are not changing their lives, and the swamp is not changing their lives. They change their own lives. We witness, support, report back, and do our best to encourage growth.” – Renee, instructor

“VOBS recognizes that every individual, every family and every set of circumstances is unique,” explains Wray. “Challenges are not likely to magically dissipate after a few weeks in the wilderness. It takes hard work, and in families, this hard work means that every family member must commit to continuing to grow, learn and make changes for the better.”

“I am way more self-reliant after my Outward Bound course. I make sure that I take care of my own responsibilities. I have learned to be more independent and learned how to look after myself.” – Hannah, student

“Challenge is one of life’s best teachers to build character. It is directly through the extreme challenges of a wilderness adventure that students discover their self worth and their ability to push past perceived limitations,” Wray adds.

“Before Outward Bound I was trying to find my own identity and independence, but didn’t know how to do so. After my Intercept course, I felt equipped with new communication tools and a better understanding of who I wanted to be.” – Emerick, student

For long into their future, at school, or work, or when faced with challenging circumstances, Intercept students will reflect back on their ability to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles — exhaustion, extreme weather or traversing a swamp. So too will they remember the bonds that were formed while being vulnerable with their peers and their instructors and sharing the magic of stargazing into a limitless dark sky or the quiet of a morning sunrise over the still lake.


By Jennifer Kimball Gasperini.  Jennifer is a freelance writer and publicist living in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

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