Trekking Through the Desert…and Liking It?

Published in The Pillar, Athenian’s student newspaper, May 2015

by Sarah Newsham ’15

“Current juniors, going through the monotonous process of buying the proper supplies and preparing themselves both physically and mentally, are starting to build up more doubts and reservations about the need for AWE in a modern schooling environment.”

Backpack Editorial Picture“…Concerned with the challenges that await them in the desert, [some juniors] insist that it is not right for a school to enforce such a physically and emotionally exhausting journey on its students.”

“[A junior] maintains that ‘trekking through a desert and facing the rigors of the elements does not meet the needs of what high schools are supposed to do’.”

These are all quotes from an article in The Pillar published in 2003 called “Athenian Wilderness reExamination: Questions arise as AWE celebrates its silver 25th Anniversary.” When I stumbled upon it in the library, I was struck by the subject and tone of the article. While some of the gripes sounded familiar (“When asked why his time on the course was so distasteful, [a] senior gave a bewildered look and responded, ‘Tell me how walking through a desert with a seventy pound pack and having to wipe your a– with rocks for three weeks is pleasant!?’”), others surprised me.

All of the students interviewed in the article, both those who had gone on AWE and those who hadn’t, as well as the author of the article, seemed to accept AWE as an activity that was loved by some and simply endured by many. In my opinion, the attitude of your average Athenian student today towards AWE has changed drastically since 2003.

The article got me thinking. When I talk to people who know of Athenian but don’t know a lot about the school, they always ask me about “that crazy survival/backpacking/wilderness thing you guys do” (and I’m sure others can relate to this experience). Sometimes their tone is one of awe (especially the adults, I have found), but oftentimes my non-Athenian peers react in horror when I describe the course to them. And I can hardly blame them–it is daunting and incredibly physically and emotionally challenging.

When I came to Athenian in sixth grade, the thought of going on AWE horrified me. However, as the dreaded event got closer, and I saw the seniors who came back gushing about their experiences, and the juniors looking forward to their turn, and the general excitement around the whole thing, I slowly warmed to the idea. By the time grouping came around, I could hardly wait.

In some ways, I attribute my positive experience to the expectations that were set by those who had gone on AWE before me. If I had expected to hate the trip, it definitely would have dampened my experience, and the fact that I was looking forward to it can only have improved it.

Of course, not everyone looks forward to AWE, and not everyone likes it, either. But I am so grateful that the community spirit towards AWE sets future AWE-ers up for a positive experience, and that we give everyone an honest shot at loving it.