Two Lehigh students at Gannett Peak summit

Ben Bentz '24 (left) and Christopher Jong '24 reached the summit of Gannett Peak in Wyoming with their Lehigh Launch group as part of a three-week backpacking expedition. (Ron Rash)

Lehigh Launch Starts First-Year Students in American West

The experiential, integrative learning experience will continue for the Fall 2021 semester, with students starting their studies in Wyoming and New Mexico.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Christopher Jong ’24 has always been used to big-city living. Raised in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya, he lived there until moving to Philadelphia three years ago. He never camped in his life.

That changed in May, when Jong was part of the inaugural class of Lehigh Launch, an experiential, integrated learning experience for intellectually curious and independent students. The inaugural group traveled to the Rocky Mountains’ Wind River Range in Wyoming for a three-week backpacking expedition, following a course of study on the Lehigh campus. The students lived and took classes in the wilderness, while learning leadership and communications skills through a Lehigh partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

Jong told his mentors, “You know, this is my first time sleeping outside.” He says, “They're like, ‘Oh, you're putting your feet in the deep end,’ but I made it, and I totally enjoyed it.”

Jong says his biggest takeaway might have been about the impact of shifting one’s mindset. Heading out West in the spring, when there was still snow on the ground, he and his fellow students found they had to sometimes trudge through snow on a hike. After one particularly tough day, one of Jong’s mentors told him it was fine to be tired, but a negative attitude would only bring down the entire group.

From that point on, “I tried to smile and I tried to stay positive,” he says. “It was crazy how your attitude can change the entire day.”

Lehigh Launch students at the Gannett Peak summit

From left to right, Bridget Freeh '24, Delaney Gemmel '24, Haley Griner '24, Ben Bentz '24, Jack Willard '24, Emily Newman '24 and Christopher Jong '24 pose with a Lehigh University flag at the summit of Gannett Peak in Wyoming. (Ron Rash)

‘A Very Happy Accident’

In the spring of 2018, Jennifer Jensen, deputy provost for academic affairs and professor of political science at Lehigh, started brainstorming about sending Lehigh students to the American West to begin their studies and possible partners such as NOLS.

“The American West is iconic,” Jensen says. “It's iconic in the imagery of America not just within this country but throughout the world, and I wanted to be able to offer that to Lehigh students.”

By the following spring, Jensen and Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs, co-chaired a committee with faculty members and other university employees to discuss what Lehigh Launch could look like.

“Lehigh has amazing opportunities, but sometimes it can feel a little bit overwhelming as a first-year student,” Jensen says. “How do you pursue them? One of the things that we really wanted educationally was a program that would give students the capacity to dive in sooner, to develop their academic and leadership skills so that they can engage more broadly and pursue more opportunities earlier in their Lehigh, or student, careers.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lehigh Launch was unable to offer the option of sending students to Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. It also had to scale back offerings in the American West, removing the Taos, New Mexico portion of the trip for the seven members of the inaugural student group who traveled west. 

Students began the fall semester in Bethlehem, taking a few of their Lehigh Launch courses on campus in both the fall and spring semesters, before departing for Wyoming in late May. Despite differing from the original plan, Barry Kroll, professor of English and the Lehigh Launch faculty lead in 2020-21, says he was able to more fully prepare the students for their backpacking experience—what he called “a very happy accident.”

He describes the course he taught in the fall as “a survey of important novels and films about the region of the American West where they were going to be living.” In spring, he taught “A Sense of Place,” which was designed to enhance students’ experience living in the West. The four-credit courses, one of which Kroll plans to teach again in the program this fall, included assigned readings about locations in the West, as well as journaling, drawing and mindfulness exercises to help students connect with the wilderness. Some of the places students encountered while hiking were locations they had already read about. On one occasion, a NOLS guide began to tell them a story about an area they already knew from Kroll’s assigned readings.

Two Lehigh students fishing

Emily Newman '24 and Bridget Freeh '24 fish during their three-week backpacking expedition.

“These students were ready for this experience in a way that I think was fantastic,” Kroll says. “They were blown away, but they took it in. And I think some of those lessons about really being there, being present for this experience, worked for them.”

According to students, the NOLS portion of Lehigh Launch was one of the more memorable parts of the experience. Students didn’t have their cell phones during the three-week backpacking expedition; nor did they have access to showers and bathrooms. However, many of the students identify the leadership lessons taught by NOLS as a primary reason why they decided to apply for Lehigh Launch.

Each day on the backpacking expedition, students were split into two groups, with one student in each group selected as the designated leader.

Emily Newman’ 24, who wanted to become more confident as a leader, appreciated the opportunity. Never before had she been in a scenario where she was able to practice leading groups or navigating them with a map and compass, she says. NOLS’ designation of different leaders each day allowed the students to see the different strengths they all had, she says, and she learned more about delegating once she knew those strengths.

Ben Bentz ’24, a computer science major, considers himself as a natural leader and says he regularly found himself in leadership positions growing up. Still, there was a lot he was able to learn from NOLS, he says. He gained a greater understanding of team members having just as much say in decision-making as a leader, he explains, and that leadership requires patience. “To know, ‘OK, if you're the leader, that doesn't mean you're the only one that makes decisions,’” Bentz says.

Newman says, “We did a lot of reflection on ourselves and figuring out who we are as people, and leadership activities. This was at NOLS but also afterwards in the classes. We did a personality test and determined our strengths and saw how they applied in our lives. And so I've definitely done a lot more reflecting on who I am and who I kind of want to be and how I can improve my strengths.”

Bentz figured he would learn more about dealing with people in possibly strenuous circumstances out in the woods, but admits he didn’t realize the extent to which NOLS’ curriculum was focused on leadership.

“It's really good,” Bentz says. “They teach leadership classes—not only how to be an adequate leader, but also what kind of leader you are and what strengths you have that you can use to push people. We had an hour-and-a-half class, totally interactive, just based off of trying to figure out what kind of leaders we were, if we were drivers or charismatic or logistical, all these types of things. … I think that it's worth the push, because there's a lot of academic potential in it.” 

While Newman, Jong and Bentz all agreed the expedition wasn’t easy, they say they always felt safe with the experienced NOLS guides. The students also say that while previous camping experience is helpful, none is necessary.

“Being able to take classes and do NOLS, it's such a good experience, and it's so good for growth,” Newman says. “It's just a different type of learning that I think people need because being in classrooms all the time, you don't get that chance to connect with nature and focus on yourself and your own personal development in that way. … If I had the chance to do it again, I definitely, 100% would.”

Kroll sensed a similar level of enthusiasm from the other students when they returned from the NOLS expedition.

A Lehigh student posing by a lake

Christopher Jong '24 is used to big-city living but "totally enjoyed" his first camping experience as part of Lehigh Launch.

“They were really tired, really euphoric, but also really excited about all they learned,” Kroll says. “They said to me, ‘We don't even know yet how much we learned, we're still processing everything we learned about self-sufficiency, leadership and problem solving.’ Those are the things that NOLS really does well.”

Anne Magnan, director of custom education at NOLS, says the partnership between NOLS and Lehigh enhances the educational experience for students.

“NOLS works with many universities, but our partnership with Lehigh allowed us to craft a richer curriculum progression than we usually have an opportunity to do,” Magnan says. “The Lehigh Launch program blended NOLS and Lehigh curriculum and faculty that made the outcome greater than the sum of its parts. NOLS strives to create transformational educational experiences, and the Lehigh Launch program really took that to another level.”

New Mexico Returns for Fall 2021

This fall with Lehigh Launch, first-year students will have the opportunity to begin their Lehigh experience backpacking under the Wyoming stars and learning about geology and other matters in the fields, ponds and lakes of New Mexico.

Following a week of virtual activities, including an orientation, students will spend approximately six weeks in Wyoming—first backpacking with NOLS for three weeks, then spending the next three weeks experiencing classroom- and field-based learning with Lehigh faculty. The courses and short field trips, which will cover geology, water resources, politics and literature, will shift to Santa Fe, N.M. for the following three weeks. In New Mexico, Jensen says, students will largely learn about two topics that weave their way through multiple courses: water and energy. Their home base will be Bishop’s Ridge Retreat.

“The students will have the opportunity to be up close to things that normally you might see in the classroom and not be able to relate in the same way,” Jensen says.

The weekend of Oct. 23 will be the first time the new cohort will arrive as students at Lehigh. Once on campus, they will spend the remainder of the semester integrating with the community, living in the residence halls and finishing their Lehigh Launch courses, according to Jensen.

While students entering Lehigh Launch in Fall 2021 won’t read the literature ahead of their travels as the inaugural group did, Kroll says they will have different advantages.

“I think what's going to change dramatically in the fall is students will have a visceral, kinesthetic, gut-level, experiential knowledge of those mountains, of the terrain and of the weather,” Kroll says. “And I think when they read the books, there's going to be an enrichment of their reading experience by having that first.”

Anne Meltzer, professor of earth and environmental sciences, and Pat Farrell, professor of mechanical engineering, will join Jensen and Kroll as faculty members for the 2021 Lehigh Launch program.

Lehigh Launch is open to students of any major who wish to develop leadership skills through a challenging, hands-on and somewhat unconventional first semester of college. Students apply through their admissions portal, and earn 16 credit hours while fulfilling distribution requirements in natural science, social science and the humanities, as well as the first-year seminar requirement for many programs. The cost is the same for the semester as it would be if students took a normal slate of classes and lived on campus, and financial aid applies, Jensen explains. Jensen also noted that, unlike a gap semester, Lehigh Launch students will have earned the academic credit needed to rush fraternities or sororities in the spring semester if they wish. After a semester of immersive learning and leadership development, they are well situated to return to campus, join groups and clubs, and engage in the broader campus experience.

For future cohorts, Jensen says Lehigh will offer international study. Lehigh Launch Fall 2022 will have two locations: the American West and Ecuador/Galapagos Islands, with Matherly spearheading the development of the international semester option.

“We are looking for students with great leadership potential,” Jensen says. “We are looking for students who are intellectually curious and have an interest in diving in [to their Lehigh experience] in the West.”

Story by

Stephen Gross