Wellness Center Brings Experiential Learning to the Great Outdoors

Peter Prescott stands near the entrance to the BC Challenge Course

During spring quarter 2015, 14 Bellevue College students enrolled in a hiking and orienteering course led by Peter Prescott, BC’s Wellness Center program manager and Bill Hawley, the Pacific Crest Trails Association (PCTA) North Cascades regional representative, headed out to the Snoqualmie Pass ski area for a day of trail maintenance.

“When Bellevue College students come out and work on the trail we get some much needed repair work done, but… it is also central to our mission to educate the public regarding issues of management, funding, and how the trail is really maintained,” said Hawley. “Fewer and fewer agency dollars are available for trail maintenance and restoration. This makes it ever more important to encourage citizen engagement.”

This was just the second year BC students worked on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), but the ninth year Prescott has run the Wilderness Skills Certificate Program, which helps students gain a basic education in all things related to northwest outdoor recreation. Over the course of two to three quarters, students enrolled in the program are offered the chance to make an honest appraisal of where they are as an outdoor recreationalist and what their future in outdoor recreation might look like, from personal trips, through working with residential camps. “It’s a good stepping stone for people to see what opportunities are out there,” said Prescott.

Classes in the certificate program include one called NW fitness opportunities, which offers one-day snapshots of eight, great northwest outdoor recreation options including kayaking, rock climbing, backpacking, and snowshoeing. Their core curriculum also includes outdoor leadership training, where they learn more about the soft skills of team development, and wilderness and remote first aid where they learn first response skills for back country-related injury.

Students enrolled in the Wilderness Skills program backpacking in the Cascades
Students enrolled in the Wilderness Skills program do much of their learning through practice, such as backpacking in the Cascades

In addition to tangible skills like biking or rock climbing, students leave the program with a connection to the natural environment. “That sense of self-sustaining, outdoor recreation and what that means on our impact on the environment. This is why partnerships like the one with the PCTA is so important,” said Prescott. “Working with the PCTA really helps students see just how much work goes into creating and maintaining these outdoor spaces. Any way that we can give back to the trail system and foster this sense of stewardship is really important.”

While the 19-credit Wilderness Skills Certification program is focused curriculum, the BC Wellness Center also offers eight to 12 introductory events every quarter for those interested in learning more about a specific outdoor pursuit. For example, students can show up with no experience or equipment and have a chance to try climbing and it is a challenge by choice – they can focus on bouldering four feet from the ground or they can climb to the top of a 40-foot wall.

“We have students who have never even been on a hike and within a 48-hour period, gain the education they need and go on an overnight backpacking trip – in one case we even summited a peak in the morning as well to get the 360-degree view of the Cascades,” he said. “These are life-changing experiences. I had a student tell me just last week that he’s done something in the woods every single week since taking one of our trips.”

From one-day introduction events to multiple-quarter certificate programs, Prescott aims to keep outdoor recreation available and affordable to everyone. He and his colleagues work tirelessly to give students an opportunity to try outdoor recreation regardless of background and it is not only easy but very affordable: $5 gets participants a day of instruction and rental equipment.

Students kayaking in Puget Sound
Kayaking in Puget Sound

For Prescott and the Wellness Center staff, it’s also important that everybody is able to learn about and explore the outdoors. Classes are open to everyone and he’s always willing to accommodate different abilities so long as it is safe, for example, pulling a wheelchair-bound student up to the top of Rattlesnake Ridge.

“To the extent possible, we try to make sure that the Wellness Center isn’t just open and available to a certain set of abilities,” he said.

Support for these programs comes from BC Student Programs and partnerships with the Northwest Outdoor Center and Redmond Vertical World and Prescott is always open to conversations to increase the program’s offerings through partnerships and community involvement.

“We get better every single year, our classes are always full and we’re primed for expansion,” he said. “This is my dream job. I get to spend two to four days a week in the woods with students – it’s pretty phenomenal.”

– by Evan Epstein

Related Links

BC Wellness Center

Last Updated September 30, 2016