Adventures in Leadership uses learning in nature to prepare incoming students for success

One of Elon’s First-Year Summer Experience programs, Adventures in Leadership offers incoming students sessions throughout N.C., including a Sea Kayaking program on the coast.

Ryan Monkman ’22 remembers well how it felt to participate in Elon’s Adventures in Leadership (AIL) program last summer. Created for incoming first-year Elon students, the program offers participants important connections with other students while incorporating experiential learning within nature.

Monkman chuckles when he recounts landing at Raleigh-Durham International Airport alone last July to begin his AIL experience. “It was the most awkward thing ever,” he said. “I was really nervous because I wanted to make a good impression.”

As he silently gathered his courage during the shuttle ride to Elon, he watched a fellow participant chat and joke with ease. “Chris was being so goofy, and it gave me the courage to be myself,” Monkman said. “That’s why AIL is great. It gives nervous people an opportunity to express themselves.”

Now, a year later, Monkman is one of 12 student facilitators, leading and mentoring incoming first-year students during AIL’s summer programming. He was at the helm of one of the two vans full of excited participants when they arrived at a small campground in rural Sealevel, N.C.

After logging nearly 250 miles driving from Elon to the North Carolina coast, the students participating in the AIL Sea Kayaking program climbed out of the air-conditioned vans, landing in the muggy campground. The mid-July weather was incredibly hot, even by North-Carolina-in-summer standards. Undeterred, the group—13 incoming first-year participants and 4 current student facilitators—got to work unloading bags, pitching bright blue tents and heaving sea kayaks off a trailer over to the water’s edge.

One of five summer AIL programs based around the state, this five-day experience was one of the first to fill all its slots, so the participants were understandably excited to get out on the water. They wobbled over a bed of oyster shells and steadied one another as they got comfortable in their kayaks.

Evan Small, the assistant director of experiential learning and outdoor adventures, led a tutorial on safety and paddling, then the group dispersed into the bay. The boats offered some freedom, autonomy and speed amid gentle waves and a setting sun. After the long drive, this was a welcome change of pace.

That evening at the campground, water dripped from the bathing suits draped over makeshift clotheslines and bare tree branches while the facilitators prepped a burrito dinner. The participants formed widening circles, laughing about inside jokes from the road and slapping mosquitos. A bright, nearly full moon rose over the water behind them. After the nightly debrief, when they divide into two smaller groups and discuss personal insights from the day and goals for the next, the first day at camp was a success.

More than 20 years old, AIL is Elon’s oldest First-Year Summer Experience program. These programs help incoming first-year students feel confident and prepared when they arrive on campus in August. Small, who oversees AIL, describes its goal: “You have to navigate spaces and conversations and begin to figure out who you are. It’s a safe and welcoming way to practice failure, which is the root of experiential education. If you fail out here, you’re able to fail when stakes are higher without as much stress.

“At its core, it’s a vehicle for incoming students to make connections with each other. I’m less concerned if they know how to kayak; I’m way more interested in them knowing people at Elon,” he said.

The programs are student-led and student-run, and those involved are regarded as educators, not guides. Maggie Miniati ’20, the program coordinator for Sea Kayaking, supervises the logistics, menus and the hiring and training of the facilitators. A former participant, she says she appreciates the self-confidence and sense of community she developed.

“That summer I learned that I could be comfortable with myself in a new situation, so I knew I could do this on campus too,” Miniati said. “During the trip it’s easy to get wrapped up in fun, but when you get to campus you have a support system. It’s overwhelming to walk around Elon until you can pinpoint people you know in a crowd.”

Last summer, Monkman formed similar kinds of connections with his fellow AIL participants. When his move-in day arrived, he had a group of people he knew and trusted. “I met some of my best friends through AIL—a large group friends my age plus upperclassmen I could lean on for advice,” he said. “Seeing those familiar faces around campus was huge. And now this year I want to provide that. Giving back is really important.”

After a couple of days in kayaks and nights in tents, this year’s Sea Kayaking group headed back to Elon. For a change of pace, they detoured to the Eno River State Park in Durham, N.C., to swim, hike and relax. Participant Hunter Copeland of Tampa reflected on his experience while lounging in a hammock by the river’s edge. “I think the best way to bond is through shared challenges,” he said. “I made a lot of friends and now I’m really excited about starting school.”

Before heading back to their own homes around the country, the group spent the final morning together, talking more seriously about the logistics of beginning college. Small and the facilitators offered pointers about time management and self-care as well as specific suggestions about utilizing professors’ office hours and reading course syllabi before the first day of class. The program ended with facilitators presenting awards to each participant. Ben Puchyr of Summerfield, N.C., received the “most likely to dance through a zombie apocalypse” award, a nod to his boundless optimism.

“After four days together, I’ve really loved bonding with everybody,” Puchyr said. “My first goal was to make friends and my second goal is to have fun with them, even when the mosquitos are attacking. I toured Elon in sixth grade and it has always been the place I wanted to go. Arriving in fall is literally a dream come true.”

Another participant, Rachel Dietert, is equally excited. And somewhat relieved. Although she wanted to get out of her comfort zone, she was still nervous about meeting strangers and trying out camping and kayaking for the first time. She returned home to Houston excited and confident, feeling like she’s found a new home and some insight about herself.
“I’ve learned that being authentic is the best way to succeed, in college or in life. I’ve made amazing friends that I can’t wait to spend the next four years of my life with,” she said.