Andie Flett is the girl’s Grade 8/9 Coordinator and the head Vermont Dorm. This is the first, long edit of her interview. For the short version, click here.
What’s your background in outdoor education?
I was introduced to outdoor education through summer camp in Ontario. I started at the summer camp that my father went to in Algonquin Park when I was six years old and went there as a student until I was 16. When I started working at the summer camp I was one of the first female guides that they hired. I did a NOLS course for 100 days when I finished high school before I began university, and in that transition from being a student to being a leader is when I really became aware that this was something really important in my life, something that I loved to share with others. Outdoor ed would weave in and out of my career as a teacher, both formally and informally.
Did it affect your fellow students at Algonquin Park through their adult lives?
I know it did. I have very strong connections with friends who I met as 6-year-olds who have gone on to all sorts of things. One of my campmates was just elected prime minister of Canada. His outdoor camp experience came up in his election campaign in terms of early skills of working together, of problem solving, of dealing with diverse situations. Absolutely, I think that for most people outdoor education has a really profound effect.
Do you think that it will translate to our students, too, with their non-outdoor backgrounds?
Absolutely. In thinking about outdoor education now, going on 25 years as an instructor in the field, I start to look at it simply as education, as human education, that happens to take place in an outdoor classroom. The outdoors is a very appropriate classroom for these lessons. Students can learn how to work as a group, they can learn how to deal with difficult situations, and they can learn how to make their comfort zone bigger. I think that those things translate into anything you do, which is how I can feel confident in saying it’s a good experience for everyone, including our students here at LAS.
Most of our students come with little experience of the outdoors, what kind of challenges and opportunities does that pose for us in Leysin?
I think this relates to your last question, is it relevant to them when they come with little experience and often with little interest in being in the outdoors. They also come with perhaps a reasonable expectation that this isn’t something that they’re going to continue into their future. I’ve thought about that question a lot and I’ve come back to that it’s not really about learning how to camp, or learning to hike or cook over a stove, because those might not be skills that they really need in the future. It’s about the self education and the group education that happens in that outdoor classroom. I think the particular challenge that it poses is designing outdoor experiences for our students in which they can feel successful. I think that there’s a huge amount of resources out there for working with youth in an outdoor setting, but we have to be acutely aware that we’re in a pretty extreme environment here in the Swiss Alps, and this is coupled with students who have less experience, so we have to be very conscious of how to make them comfortable and safe and set them up for success in something that for many of them is a huge scary change from anything they’ve ever known. But I’ve seen this happen through the Alpine Club, and I’ve seen the rewards that it gives the kids, so I think it’s absolutely possible.
Do any particular examples come to mind?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve worked closely together in bringing the International Award to LAS and last year we had about 15 students on an overnight camping trip. Going back to designing an experience that’s safe and where they can be successful, we accomplished that aftr a lot of planning. Everybody’s shoes had to be examined, everybody had to have the right jacket, and there was a possibility of bad weather. But we got 15 kids out the door and doing an overnight camping trip. A number of those students went on another trip the following weekend where they did have snow, what could be called extreme weather, and they had a great time. It was difficult and there were unexpected things and there was a lot of work that went into it, but I really believe that these experiences make them more confident as people because they know they can survive and adapt outside their comfort zone. Ultimately that happens a lot as an adult in different ways.
Some have told me that their favorite outdoor experience was that particular camping trip, and it was largely because of the snow and the storm.
I’ll quote here from a promotional video that I saw recently from outward bound. Outward Bound was founded by a man named Kurt Hahn who also founded the DoE’s International Award. Challenge is one of the main principles. We also take our 10th grade students on an Outward Bound experience during cultural trip. Outward Bound says “we push youth out of their comfort zone and by doing so we make their comfort zone bigger”. That really clearly articulates how I feel about outdoor education. When we purposefully push the students outside their comfort zone in a way that we know is safe and achievable, then we build their self confidence and we give them something that they can take into any area of their lives. I think that we forget that whatever outward behaviors adolescents might have, a lot of what they’re going through is really scary. Everything around them is changing, they’re being given more responsibility, and they’re being asked to make really important decisions. We forget that even though they might have different behaviors and might act confident, they actually might feel a little bit insecure. So whatever we can do to make them believe in themselves is really nourishing. I saw those kids come back from that trip with that look which is the payback for me in outdoor education, that look of “I can’t believe I did that”, and to me that’s gold.
What was your role in bringing the International Award to LAS?
My role in bringing the International Award to LAS was coming here as somebody who’s passionate about outdoor ed and seeing that the program at the school, the current program at the time, wasn’t fully capitalizing on the opportunities around here to experience the Alps and to even experience just Leysin. Without even getting into a vehicle there’s so much to do right around town. We have the ski program, and that’s a base because everybody goes outside in an uncomfortable environment and experiences that, but I really saw a lack of capitalizing on this environment and also a lack of capitalizing on the really rich history at this school. Your father John Harlin in the 60s brought kids outside. A Canadian, Chick Scott, spent some time time here, and some really rich history. Looking around at different yearbooks and pictures on the wall, some really cool trips had been done. It’s a unique time to be bringing youth outdoors. There ars some very important and real constraints on teachers these days, and I think that’s why I gravitated to the International Award because it was a way to articulate and define and structure an outdoor program that’s really the norm now, and also to tell the students that this is valuable. So going back to the question, most of our students won’t become world class mountaineers or even cook on a campstove again. But to try to articulate to the students what the value of doing these things is, the International award articulates those areas of personal growth and challenge. Service has also become a large component. And it’s recognized and is something they can put on their university transcripts, it’s something they can tell an employer. I think that’s important because these are very goal focused students and I think it’s important to give them a goal and to recognize what they’ve achieved.
How is the Alpine Club approach different?
The concept of an alpine club is pretty ancient in Europe, well ancient in modern times, but ancient in terms of having a culture of people who have spare time to go trotting around the mountains. So it’s that foundation where it’s about comradery and it’s about building bonds between people and enjoying the outdoors and I think that it’s existed for a long time and it certainly has a very strong place here. We’re seeing that the International Award is building on that basic experience and those foundational relationships. We’re saying let’s take this to the next level, let’s take this to the next notch, let’s start articulating goals in these different areas and let’s recognize when you’ve achieved certain things so you can put that on one line on your resume or on your university application and tell people a little bit more about what you’re about and what you’ve done.
As I see it, the main thing about the Alpine Club is just to get kids outside doing stuff, so it doesn’t have to be as structured as the IA is, it’s just a matter of going out and doing stuff.
Yeah, and it’s in that sense we talk about a liberal arts education. We talk about exposing teenagers and young people to a variety of things: let’s go to a museum, let’s take a history course, and everybody should know some science. I see that as very much part of it: let’s also experience this environment that we’re in, we’re in the Alps, you’ve chosen to come to Switzerland, so experience Switzerland, experience being outside, and then take that as far as you want to take it. The Alpine Club gives people the opportunity to experience the Alps at whatever level they’re at, and that’s a really good thing about it.
(AI – interview Andie Flett 151119 – first long edit (rough) (1700 words))