When Dwight launched the Duke of Edinburgh International Award Program in 2020, we knew it was a great fit for our students.
The Award, as it is formally known in the U.S., is the world’s leading youth achievement award encouraging young people ages 14-24 to learn new skills, be physically active, volunteer within their communities, and discover a sense of adventure outside the classroom. The Award’s fundamentals closely align with the International Baccalaureate’s Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS) requirement and other aspects of the IB that foster global citizenship.
Last spring, Dwight students found that they could “discover a sense of adventure outside the classroom” and fulfill The Award’s Adventurous Journey (AJ) requirement to explore and learn about wild spaces by participating in our WILD (Wilderness Instruction Leadership Development) program, thanks to the generosity of The Dwight School Foundation.
Faculty Share Their Passion
WILD, which was founded in 2019 by Shauna Fitzmahan and Daniel Bjelis, provides students with the opportunity to learn important outdoor skills and sustainable practices, and to embark on hikes together in scenic spots in New York and beyond. Guided by expert outdoor adventurers Ms. Fitzmahan and Mr. Bjelis, who share a passion for trekking that began when they were in high school, seven students set out for Harriman State Park — the second largest park in New York State with nearly 50,000 acres — for a three-night backpacking and camping trip. The participants were: Cormac Bradley ’22, Erica Frenette ’23, Mariella Michel ’23, Isabella Wang ’23, George Paltridge ’24, Olivia Severson ’24, and Sophia Severson ’25.
In addition to serving as WILD Coordinators, Ms. Fitzmahan is Dwight’s Theory of Knowledge and Internship Coordinator, and Mr. Bjelis is the Head of Mathematics. Each one has long dedicated quite a bit of their free time to hiking and other outdoor pursuits around the world. They are thrilled to pass on their expertise to inspire students to respect, learn about, and test themselves in the great outdoors — and to enjoy all that is possible off the beaten path.
Over a challenging four days, students learned a wide range of skills in: camp craft, which includes choosing a campsite, setting up tents, filtering water, storm-proofing gear so it doesn't fly away, and food storage; wilderness survival, which includes navigation, first, aid, and building a fire; and leadership. They also focused on the seven principles of “Leave No Trace,” which fosters sustainability and conservation to eliminate human impact on the natural environment, as their guiding theme. Each Adventurous Journey is required to have an overarching goal and the students selected “Leave No Trace” for theirs when they embarked on training hikes last fall in preparation for this trip.
During the first night in the field, students began learning the skills mentioned above, as well as how to take precautions against a potential bear attack, which is most often a result of a bear being surprised. They gathered around the fire in the evening, telling stories, laughing, and gazing at the stars before tucking in for a good night’s sleep. After rising at dawn the next morning to prepare for a long day of hiking on the trail, the group set off for their eight-mile journey with good weather and lots of enthusiasm. After a much-needed afternoon nap, they returned to their moonlit campsite and shared s’mores, which one of the students had brought along, making for a perfect end to their first full day.
The next day was rainy and foggy, so the group packed up quickly to hit the slippery trail. A few minor falls later, the sun came out and everyone enjoyed a long, leisurely lunch by a clear bubbling stream. Many students were new to backpacking, so it came as a surprise that they had to treat water from streams and lakes to remove any bacteria, protozoa, and viruses that may be present. They were also surprised that the treated water was not as tasty as New York City’s tap water. When students spotted a running stream on the following day’s hike, they were thrilled that it was so clear and delicious. In an ambitious move, many decided to fill up their water bottles with ten liters of that stream water, adding 22 pounds to their already heavy backpacks despite their leaders’ efforts to dissuade them. Students were determined to hike the last uphill two miles with the extra weight to ensure they would have the freshest water possible for the night.
Up to the Challenge
Upon arriving at their campsite, students were charged with readying it on their own. They were up to the task, seamlessly setting up tents and a cooking area, and prepping the “bear hangs,” which involves stowing items with a scent like food and toiletries in waterproof bags and hanging them high in a tree to keep bears and other animals away. “We were delighted to see that the students were thriving as a team and excelling in their use of the new backpacking and wilderness skills they had just learned,” shares Ms. Fitzmahan.
Nevertheless, the tired campers who had trekked 20 miles in total, were still eager to get home the following morning for a hot shower — and some of that delicious New York City tap water! Nearing their destination and the bus to ferry them back to School at just a mile from the trailhead, students slowed down at the sight of an injured hiker, an older man who had badly rolled his ankle on his own weekend adventure. Without hesitation, one student took his backpack and strapped it on her front. Together with her own backpack, she was carrying 80 pounds of gear. The grateful hiker hobbled alongside the students as they exchanged hiking stories, which helped to distract him as he pushed through the pain on a slow last mile of the hike. Mr. Bjelis and Ms. Fitzmahan beamed with pride to see their adventurous team come to the rescue of a stranger despite how much they wanted to get back to the comforts of home.
When they did pile onto the bus, most students fell asleep quickly after an exhausting but inspiring adventure. Not long after, emails expressing gratitude poured in to our WILD leaders. One of the students shared, “I don't think I've ever had a school trip impact me as much as this hike did, and the amount of work Ms. Fitz, Mr. Bjelis, and everyone else put in was so clear because the hike ran so smoothly. I'm really looking forward to the next WILD hike (hopefully as soon as possible). Thank you for such a fun and enlightening experience that I won't forget about for quite a while.”
Parents, too, were appreciative. One said, “My child returned mentally and physically in such a good place! The fresh air, lack of IT exposure, and exercise was long overdue, and its benefits are still being felt!”
Not long after the trip, one of the students took their family on a hike and their parent wrote, “I was so impressed at how [my child] took charge of our group and demonstrated her knowledge in Leave No Trace, trail etiquette, setting the pace for our group, packing our backpack, and general knowledge about the outdoors!”
Gaining wilderness skills certainly builds confidence and self-reliance, while spending time in nature is a powerful way to heal, learn, and grow. We’re so delighted that our students had the opportunity to do both.
We’re also excited that both our WILD and Duke of Edinburgh programs are expanding this year. Enrollment begins this Friday at our Upper School After-school Activities Fair.
WILD looks forward to welcoming more students for their next big adventure!
- International Trips