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Participant Stories

by Kristen Zimmerman, Dean, Baccalaureate Programs and University Center, Edison State College, Southwest Florida

In April of 2010, I was approached by a senior administrator to determine my interest and availability to attend an assessment conference outside of Portland, Oregon. I eagerly accepted the invitation to attend on behalf of my college. What I didn’t know until mid-June was that the experience would be centered around white water rafting analogies and would include an experiential learning activity on the river. While I was excited about this fantastic opportunity, I was also somewhat apprehensive about the risk-taking experience that was before me. I figured that since I had a few months to mentally prepare myself, I would be good to go!

In my field of higher education, students are faced with challenges throughout their journey. As educators, we must be aware of the situations our students face and strive to provide a student-centered philosophy to meet their needs inside, and outside, of the classroom. As students at the White Water Institute, faculty and administrators experience this joyous ride in a parallel scenario that students experience.

Upon arrival to the White Water Institute, I nervously awaited more instruction and information about the events of the week and the hands-on rafting experience. We were warmly welcomed by the staff and facilitators of the assessment conference and immediately began to establish camaraderie with individuals from multiple states and regions. Despite the tranquility of the resort, river and newly established friendships, I felt my anxiety level begin to rise as I anticipated the trip down the Deschutes. In many ways, the waves of anxiety I felt oddly mirrored the eddys, rapids and holes of the river.

As we prepared for our first time down the river, we were instructed to self-select groups consisting of 6 participants (with no more than 3 beginners and with at least one “expert”).  The peers I traveled with from Florida, as well as the new colleagues we had recently met, excitedly began grouping together. I quickly found myself in a group with 5 inexperienced rafters (a few with confidence levels mirroring mine) and one expert…this did not meet the criteria we were instructed to achieve! Although I might have appeared calm on the outside, I was terrified. I was certain this would not fare well for me and I found myself retreating, without the self-confidence to fulfill this journey.

Our group was introduced to the fine crew of the White Water Institute shortly thereafter. Each of our four groups was to be assigned an experienced staff member to guide us down the river. Our guides knew this river well, but I knew that I could not only be confident in my guide. I had to reach a level of confidence in my rafting peers, and most importantly, in my own abilities to truly get through this experience. There are boulders hidden in the rapids. There are tides that cause your raft to completely submerge underwater. There are rapids that cause the majority of rafts to capsize.  There are no straps to secure you in the raft and there was no option to decline participation. The last time I went canoeing in Florida, there were no obstacles or boulders in my path yet, somehow, I capsized multiple times. I was filled with a tremendous amount of fear.

The guide of my raft, Toby, was quickly made aware of my reservations (by me). His patience and understanding provided a very solid foundation from which I started to build my self-confidence.  We put-in and immediately began a difficult journey down the Deschutes River. As we approached our first challenge, and then another and another soon after, I became trusting of my new peers and realized the value of team leadership and challenge. I still greatly feared falling from the raft, or rendering myself unconscious, but knew I had to fulfill this goal. For once I climbed onto that raft, I set a personal goal: to develop the confidence to travel on this journey and to mirror that confidence as a leader in higher education, and within all of my personal roles. Not only was this a measure of physical and mental success, but the analogies for me became quite clear. Personally and professionally, I was and would be faced with experiences that would make me uncomfortable. It was my time to establish a new way of facing challenges and persevering with confidence. Almost magically, this transition occurred for me on the trip down the river.

An ultimate challenge on the river is termed “riding the bull.” This voluntary activity involves sitting on the front of the raft, holding a small rope, and taking the rapids head-on! A number of the expert rafters showed little enthusiasm for this experience. I recall declining this opportunity ad nauseam.  There was not a chance in the world that I (the one who feared this the most) would voluntarily strap myself to the front of a raft with the great possibility of falling overboard. Not me. Well…I rode the bull. At the very final moment, I figured it was worth it. And it was – it changed me forever.

With each reflection and rafting adventure throughout the week, I overcame my fears. I trusted in myself and in complete strangers more than I ever could have imagined possible. I continuously reflect on this experience and catalogue new personal and professional goals. In many ways, this experience transformed me and I have often referred to it as life-changing since returning home. I strive to provide opportunities for students, colleagues, family members and friends that challenge them to stretch beyond their comfort levels. For without doing so, I would be watching from the shore and missing out on the amazing experiences of challenge, growth and self-exploration.

by Kathryn Burr, Women’s Resource Center

Kathryn BurrWhen I think back on my experience of attending the White Water Institute, I find myself smiling and saying to myself, “Wow, what a ride.”

Working for a non-profit that deals with domestic violence and sexual assault on a daily basis, I am well versed in multi-tasking and dealing with stress. I never could have guessed the impact the river metaphors would have on the way I go about doing my work. Metaphors such as, “Paddle – two forward! Take a break,” and, “Dig! Dig! Dig! Good job!” have helped me remember that even though I work in a crisis environment, it doesn’t mean I have to push myself too and forget to take time for reflection and relaxation.

Another thing that was particularly impactful on me was the way our river guides led their boats. I was impressed with the way they led from the back and never forgot to positively motivate, encouraging us with a “you-can-do-this” attitude and being extremely kind.

I strive to lead as they led me and I am grateful for their example. I continue to unfold lessons that I took away from my time at W2I. Sometimes I realize I’m in a “tube suck” and I am able to redirect myself and the way I am approaching the project I am working on.

I am truly grateful for my experience at W2I and strongly encourage anyone, no matter what line of work you may be in, to attend the institute — you will not regret it.

by Steven Blakesley, Clatsop County Public Health

Steve BlakesleyTime on the river offers the perfect experiences to blend academic concepts of community building and systems thinking with the practical aspect of getting things done. My team and I left the river with a solid action plan, new skills, a lot of momentum and a greater sense of purpose to help us navigate our way.


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