Studying abroad off the beaten path in Patagonia

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The program I chose for my ‘study’ abroad experience was a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)course in Chilean Patagonia. NOLS is a non-profit outdoor education school that teaches environmental ethics, technical outdoor skills, wilderness medicine, risk management, and leadership on expeditions lasting anywhere from one week to a year. My 80 day expedition was divided into four sections – Wilderness First Aid training and expedition prep at the NOLS base, 30 days of mountain travel, 30 days of sea kayaking, and over a week of independent backpacking.
The NOLS website describes Patagonia as a “remote wilderness of isolated mountain valleys, ragged icy peaks, turbulent rivers, and island archipelagos.” I assume that most people would not dream of subjecting themselves to a program like this after reading the description, so maybe I am crazy, but I was immediately excited at the prospect of going to this location. After a lot of time spent on the Trinity website looking into credit and major requirements, working with the Registrar’s Office and my advisor, I realized that my dream was actually possible.  Getting on the plane to go down to Chile this past September was one of the proudest moments of my life. The months that followed were filled with moments I am proud of, but this specific moment stands out to me. I was traveling into the unknown. I did not know anyone that I would be spending the next 2.5 months with in the backcountry. I did not know the challenges that I would face. I knew that I was going to be uncomfortable. I knew that it was going to be hard, but I went anyway.
The first part of my expedition was spent exploring a national reserve in the southern part of Chile called Reserva Nacional Jeinemeni. My group consisted of 16 students and five instructors, none of whom had been to this region before. As we were all new to the area, we shared a common sense of adventure finding our way through the valleys and mountains of the reserve. We traveled across and camped on glaciers. We ice climbed, built snow caves, and did normal day-to-day things like fly fishing and cooking. We climbed a mountain that had never been climbed before. We named it “Cerro de Tordillo,” or “White Horse.“
For the next part of our expedition we drove to the coastal Aysén region of Chile. Here, we spent the better part of our days kayaking, camping on a beach overnight, and then kayaking again the next day. We kayak surfed, swam in the Pacific Ocean, and saw all sorts of marine life. The only word I can use to describe this part of my trip is wet. Patagonia decided to show off and rained on us for three weeks straight. The only shelter we had was our tents. Everything I owned was wet. I was uncomfortable.
The last part of the expedition was an independent backpacking trip. Small groups of five or six people were given an area of Patagonia to travel and we were set free with a map and a pick up location. Easily one of my favorite parts of the expedition, this section was essentially a culmination of everything we had learned in the past two months. We had been uncomfortable for so long we did not even think about it anymore. We found extreme joy in the smallest things like food, our surroundings, and each other’s company. We were able to find our way with only a map and a compass, to cook our own meals with very few resources, and we knew how to make the most of unpleasant situations. We learned a lot about the core of human relationships as well as the importance of being outdoors. Life was simple; we did not want to leave.
There are so many options for study abroad and so many different interpretations of the idea of study abroad. My friends that chose to go to Europe learned much more from their experience in a foreign country and culture than they did in their typical college classes. I chose a different path. My expedition in Patagonia left me a more capable and confident person. Exploring the world forces you to also explore yourself. I would encourage anyone looking to study abroad while at Trinity to try something out of his or her comfort zone. I spent 80 days outside, without the confinement of four walls and a ceiling. And I was comfortable.

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