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Honors students reflect on National Parks experiences

Student on hikeFive students in the Reaud Honors College of Lamar University traveled to four National Parks over the summer as participants in the Partners in the Parks program, an experiential learning program affiliated with the National Collegiate Honors Council and the National Park Service.

During weeklong trips spanning May through August, Emmalee Calvert, sophomore dietetics major; Tara Hoch, senior political science major; Kender Myers, junior accounting major; Louisa Liu, senior chemical engineering major; and Kimanh Tsan, junior chemical engineering major, partook in a multitude of educational and exploratory activities with other NCHC honors students, as well as with “partners”—leaders affiliated with regional honors colleges, field experts, researchers, park rangers, park leadership, and more.

“Participation in the program fulfills students’ requirement for a ‘High Impact Educational Practice’ in the Reaud Honors College, the involvement in at least one such practice being mandatory for students to attain the distinction of Honors College Graduate upon graduation,” Reaud Honors College Dean Kevin Dodson said.

Students with signSophomore dietetics major Emmalee Calvert traveled to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee in May.

“I enjoy the outdoors and taking a week-long trip to a national part to fulfill an honor’s requirement sounded like a dream,” Calvert said. “So when the opportunity opened up to apply, I took the chance.”

Calvert and a group of students from honors colleges nationwide braved a week of rain while participating in activities including backpacking and whitewater rafting.

Smokey Mountain campfire“My favorite parts of the trip were really the little spontaneous things. Seeing an elk by the side of the road. Cramming five people in a four-person tent. Giving up sleeping in a tent the next few nights and enjoying sleeping in our van. Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoying the gorgeous views. Making giant s'mores. Getting to hike on an off-limits trail with a park ranger to explore the damage of a recent fire. Just being outside the whole week set the trip up to be an amazing experience.”

Hoch and Myers tested the limits of their endurance during their week in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The trip fell during the park’s peak wildflower season in late July, which gave them an unprecedented opportunity to see the normally snow-covered mountains ablaze with color.

“We capped our week off with a backpacking trip through a valley absolutely covered in flowers—it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen; it moved me to tears,” Hoch said. “But beyond the beauty of the park itself, I met so many beautiful people with whom I feel I’ll share a bond forever. From sharing scribbled prose and personal reflections by the campfire and waiting up when someone fell behind the group during hikes to following our partners on wild adventures and pushing the limits of our bodies. We were encouraged to take time for introspection and I think we all grew in ways that far surpassed our expectations. It was a life-changing experience.”

Five students on large tree stumpMyers said her biggest takeaway was a renewed sense of selflessness.

“Every part of the park needs more care than you could ever imagine and we are all part of that preservation process. I learned about a culture of care—caring more for those around me and more for the scenery around me,” she said. “Appearance, ability, and expectation were left at home. Authenticity is what resulted. It was refreshing and beautiful to be in community with people not trying to impress one another or pretend to be someone they weren't. It was real and it was rare.” 

Though the terrain was challenging, Hoch and Myers said the rewards vastly outweighed the risks. 

“I promised myself at the beginning of this trip that I would participate in everything, whether or not I felt scared or uncomfortable,” Myers said, “And I did. I climbed the Nisqually Glacier, scaled a steep rocky hill, woke up at 5 a.m. to hike up a cliff to watch the sunrise, and shared more of my personal life than I thought possible with strangers. I went to the park in search of adventure and peace. What I felt and saw was more than I could have ever imagined.” 

Hiking in RainierFrom August 8 to 13, Tsan and Lui traversed tree-dotted Sequoia National Park in California’s southern Sierra Nevada Range.

“I decided to participate in Partners in the Parks ultimately because it transported me out of my comfort zone,” Tsan said. “I learned a great deal about myself, and meeting and getting to know the other participants was amazing. The connection was instant with our group—many of us didn’t know what to expect, and so in a way, we were all on the same level. There is something particularly special about getting to know people without a roof over our heads. We always wanted to set our tents up next to one another.”

Though the terrain was sometimes challenging and plans didn’t always pan out, Tsan and Lui said the tenor of perseverance among the group overpowered any negativity.

Partners in the Park at Rainier“We hiked Sawtooth Pass. It was a difficult terrain; there was even a forewarning from a sign that read, ‘Trail Not Maintained.’ We had planned to then camp on the downside of the mountain, but due to ice coverage, this wasn’t possible,” Tsan said. “Some things just don’t go as planned, but it’s okay. People slipped and fell on those trails, but you just get back up and keep hiking. You don’t give up.”

Myers said she’s already looking into summer 2018 Partners in the Parks programs.

“It was, hands down, the most incredible experience of my life. I am still reaping the benefits from all that I learned—from little things like spending less time on my cell phone to major life changes, like being authentic, active, and intentional in the relationships I have,” she said. “I would encourage any honors student, irrespective of their major, to take part in Partners. It’s not just a trip—it’s an investment you can make into your personal growth and view on life.”