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Into the Wild: TMA Students Participate in the North Carolina Outward Bound School

After 22 days hiking and camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains with North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS), Thurgood Marshall Academy alumna Jessie Watkins (’14) believes that she will “forever be a leader.”

Outward Bound is a wilderness-based educational experience dedicated to the idea that people are capable of far more than they know. Though there are chapters throughout North and South America, students from Thurgood Marshall Academy take part in the NCOBS. To date, 11 Thurgood Marshall Academy students have participated in the NCOBS thanks to a local scholarship fund that covers the costs of the program. Along with instructors from NCOBS, they spend 22 days hiking and camping through the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina in a community with 8-10 other students from across the country.

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Jessie (far left) along with NCOBS peers

Far from a leisurely stroll, NCOBS volunteer Jim Belikove describes the program as a “rigorous experience: You are carrying all of your gear and hiking up mountains or paddling in rivers. It’s not necessarily intended to be a fun experience, but one where you have to push yourself to do things that you don’t know how to do or don’t want to do. It’s an opportunity to test yourself.”

Jim believes that an Outward Bound-style program present enormous benefits, particularly for students from low-income or minority backgrounds. Many, he notes, “have not been outside of the DC area, some have ever been in the woods, and some have never been on a plane.” Students, he says, also benefit from “interaction with others who are from totally different backgrounds. We don’t want the kids from TMA to be together. We want them out with new people, without a fall back person they might already know.”

Jim also explains that “part of the Outward Bound experience is learning to work in groups.” Out in the wilderness for more than three weeks, the 8-10 participants form a tight-knit community that “has to collaborate and work things out among themselves. Some may be less physically fit, or less disciplined than the others, but the group can’t leave them behind. They learn how support the others, and how can others support them,” he says.

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Preparing to head to the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina

Jessie, now a freshman at the Art Institute of Washington, participated in the NCOBS in summer 2012 and agrees with Jim’s assessment of the program. To Jessie, this experience meant “growth, change and challenge.” She found that her personal growth emerged from “the process of adapting to change,” and that “the most significant challenge for me was facing my fears.  I was so afraid to canoe [and] rock climb.  I was against doing everything. But I finally stepped out of my comfort zone thanks to the motivation and encouragement of others and the trip.”

Beyond the physical and mental challenges presented by her 22 days outdoors, Jessie also notes a change in how she viewed and interacted people from different backgrounds she met during the trip. An experience with another NCOBS participant changed her outlook on those around her. “During the course, I met someone in the group with a disability, who had also been home schooled his entire life. He was an only child and had never really experienced having friends his age.” Though she was initially frustrated by him, Jessie “reevaluated myself and became very patient with him. I got to know him more and bonded with him, and so I started to understand him.” Jessie says that by the end of the trip, they “formed a very close relationship and I looked out for him. Before we left NBOBS and went our separate ways, he told me that I was the big sister he never had.”

But most importantly, Jessie reflects on the changes she sees in herself, and her attitude towards others, thanks to her experience with NBOCS. Prior to NCOBS, “I was so short tempered a quick to snap,” explains Jessie. But with her NCOBS experience behind her, Jessie “learned to really enjoy helping others in any way that I could,” and now thinks “about others before myself.”