Unity College’s Adventure programs open up a world of journeying for graduates and those they work with
Every undergraduate has a story about how and why they applied to the college of their choice. Most are pretty mundane, but Dr. William Hafford’s journey to Unity College was just that. A true journey.
“I was accepted in 2003, and I applied while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail,” Dr. Hafford said. “I would hike seven to ten days, and then I’d fax them the next round of information, then hike another seven to ten days.”
Dr. Hafford, a hiking novice at the time, was a complete newbie when it came to the Appalachian Trail, making all the mistakes one would expect from someone so frosh. All in all, he hiked 750 miles, almost a third of the AT, opting to defer college a year to work with at-risk youth through AmeriCorps’ VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program.
It was here that Dr. Hafford had his ah-ha moment: “I thought, man, I wonder if there’s a way that I could connect this passion for being outside and working with youth,” he said. “I had already applied to Unity, but then I saw the Adventure Therapy program that had just started, so I enrolled in 2004.”
Now Dr. Hafford teaches the next generation of those looking to merge the very passions that led him to Unity College.
Unity College offers two adventure-based degrees, Adventure-based Environmental Education and Adventure Therapy. The key difference between the two programs is that Adventure-based Environmental Education is more akin to an environmental studies program, while Adventure Therapy incorporates therapeutic and counseling skills.
“Unity College is known for offering students a unique, experiential education. While all of our programs offer students hands-on experience, our Adventure degrees are very much embedded in experience,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury. “With these degrees, graduates can take what they have learned through those experiences and share it with others, helping people engage with nature and one another.”
“Adventure, the down and dirty definition, is a heightened sense of engagement,” said Beth Arnold, Senior Instructor of Adventure Education Leadership, who has been with the program for more than a decade. “So, reading a book can be an adventure, if it’s facilitated and taken on in the right way. Both of these programs will heighten your sense of engagement with self, with community, and with the natural world.”
While those in Unity College’s Adventure Program can go on to become educators, social workers, or even business owners, they’re all connected by that heightened sense of engagement, and a desire to get others outdoors.
“Especially as we gain in our technological engagement,” adds Arnold, “which separates us more from the natural world, we’re really starting to see how important this program is.”
When Becky Clough (‘09), who graduated with a degree in Adventure Education Leadership, first came to Unity College, she knew it was the right fit for her.
“As an incoming student, being part of the Nova program, that was when I really felt like I’d found the right school for me,” she said.
One of the most challenging courses, Clough noted, was the program planning course, which also happened to be one of the most rewarding she took while at Unity College. “It’s a rigorous course, where basically they had us design our ideal adventure program. Beth Arnold encouraged us to dream big, whether it was feasible or not,” said Clough. Students have to consider all the logistics for the program, from budgeting to equipment, giving the students first-hand experience with what it takes to actually put the plan to work. For Clough, it made the whole experience more tangible. “Oh, I’m going to graduate with this, and it’s a real thing,” she added. “And I could put it into practice someday.”
Clough, who has been working with Outward Bound off and on since 2007, now works as the Southwest Program Manager at Colorado Outward Bound School.
She credits a wilderness semester offered to Unity students through the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School for helping her land a job as an instructor eleven years ago. As the Program Manager, she now handles new staff training and mentoring, but also still gets out into the field. It’s her Unity College experience that not only gave her the skills to educate people out in the field, but also helped train her to be a leader for other staff members.
“The most successful staff members we have went to a program similar to Unity College, where you have to work together with people,” she said. “Being in such a tight-knit program really helps you figure out how to work in this industry. You can always learn technical skills, but things like teamwork and leadership abilities really help an outdoor educator excel in the industry.”
From 2006 to 2012, Zachary Wigham (‘13) was working with the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard as a chemical weapons survival instructor for airmen who were preparing to deploy. From there, he discovered his passion for the outdoors after becoming an EMT working with Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue Team.
“That exposed me to finally getting out in the woods, and I found that I really liked that part,” said Wigham. “And if I could just do that part over and over again, I would.”
As he was finishing community college and looking to the next chapter, Wigham was looking for something that combined his interest in survival instruction with his passion for the outdoors. Wigham’s brother was already attending Unity College, studying landscape and horticulture management, and that’s when Zach discovered Unity College’s Adventure Education Leadership program.
“I realized that I was very interested in the group experience of struggling through hardship together,” said Wigham. “I didn’t put those words to it at the time, but I was very interested in these programs that were popping up around 2010 and 2011 when I applied to Unity College, for veterans coming back from deployment settings. They had been together in this terrible experience as a group, and oftentimes these programs put them out in wilderness expedition experiences as a group, to have an experience that was still very difficult, but had a positive goal to it.”
At Unity College, Wigham was focused on expanding his technical and wilderness skills, and figuring out how he could best work with group experiences of hardship, which over time broadened beyond the veteran population. He also developed a senior thesis, exploring the philosophy behind adventure education and the connection between sustainability science and experiential education.
After graduating from Unity College, Wigham went on to earn his master’s in clinical social work from Smith College in Massachusetts, and now works as a “jack of all trades” clinical social worker at Groundworks Collaborative, a homeless shelter agency in Brattleboro, Vermont.
“The two elements that I’ve carried with me from Unity to Smith and into my professional career, have been the ability to manage, lead, and be relatively self-sufficient in very chaotic and difficult environments, and my interest in group life,” said Wigham. “And so I carry that with me today directly at the homeless shelter.”
Unlike a lot of students, Alvah Maloney (‘99) knew exactly what he wanted to do when he was wrapping up high school. Maloney, who majored in what was then called the Outdoor Recreation and Leadership program, grew up in Waterville where he helped his parents with their whitewater rafting company, and he knew that’s also what he wanted to pursue.
“Outdoor recreation was definitely my passion,” said Maloney. “My experience at Unity College was incredible, and I even began to build my business while I was there.”
Maloney worked hard throughout his time at Unity to create what would ultimately become his own business, Maine Kayak. Now based just sixty miles from The College in New Harbor, the plan behind Maine Kayak began in an intensive Program Planning course, where Maloney built out a full blueprint for how the business would work. Celebrating the 20th year since Maine Kayak’s inception,
“The best part of my job is the philosophy behind it,” Maloney explains. “Which is to get people outdoors, help them gain a better appreciation for the outdoors, and give them that “awe” moment.”
Maloney has seen his students come with little or no experience, and work their way up to kayaking around the Grand Canyon. “To give them the knowledge and skill so they can have their own adventures, it’s very rewarding.”
With an outdoor recreation business so close to the College’s flagship campus, Maloney is always looking out for Adventure students in need of a mentor, or a summer job, to give them first-hand experience in actually running such a business.
While Zach admits it’s been too long since he’s had the chance to return to Unity, Maine, Alvah is just a little way down the road, and Becky is planning a quick trip back this fall to talk with students and the faculty about her experiences.
Back at the flagship campus, Beth Arnold and Dr. Hafford get ready for the experiential educators block for the upcoming semester. The block is an intensive semester that prepares first-year students, who are very much still finding their own adventure, for what’s to come for not only the remainder of their time at Unity College, but after it as well.
“We essentially lay down the foundational content for them in those 15 credits,” said Arnold. “From their first year they feel a really strong sense of community to that block group, because they’ve given blood, sweat and tears together. Even when they are giving their presentation for their senior internship, they will say: “You know what? I was ready for this internship after the block.”