Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Engstrom


Sarah was born under a wandering star. She grew up in Wyoming, studied Russian at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and is now in graduate school for Outdoor and Environmental Education in Alaska. She has traveled all over the world, and loves to watercolor and play board games.

Why did you pick this program?

I grew up in Wyoming, the birthplace of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I knew from a very young age that I wanted a NOLS adventure, but the timing never worked out until 2013. I had just finished a year working at an environmental learning center in Minnesota, and I wanted to explore outdoor education more in depth.

The Semester for the Outdoor Educator not only offered the NOLS experience I had heard about my whole life, but it was further professional development in my career as an educator.

What do you wish someone had told you before you went abroad?

I think I was very well prepared by NOLS for their experience. I might have planned to rent more of my gear for the trek from their store, but I also wanted to try out my personal supplies.

What is the most important thing you learned abroad?

I am capable. I can lead, and build shelter, and THRIVE in adverse situations.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

Dare to fail gloriously. Everyone owes it to themselves to experience new cultures and places, because doing so forces you to examine what you know, and what you believe.

What was the hardest part about going abroad?

All NOLS courses are removed from civilization, because that is their whole premise. I Loved that aspect. Even when it meant long stretches without contacting the people I love. The course itself was grueling, I have never worked so hard in my life. I would do it again tomorrow if I could.

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

Part of my course was rock climbing. I don't have a problem with heights usually, but something about this sport terrifies me. I was determined that if I learned more about it from experts I might find a way to love it. Every day, I forced myself to climb at least one pitch. I belayed anyone who needed it. I learned knots and how to build anchors.

On the last day of the climbing section, I went on a multi-pitch climb. I was so scared that I almost threw up, but I did it! I still don't love rock climbing, but I know I can do it.

What made this experience unique and special?

My expedition group is amazing. They all came from such diverse backgrounds and experiences. I still talk to them all the time.

Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.

The last night of our winter camping portion We skied 10 miles in the moonlight to our pickup point. We watched the sunrise over Togwatee pass, and it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Focus on the now. Leave your phone off. Try something new every chance you get.

What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions, future path?

I thought going in that I wanted to be a NOLS instructor. I don't think I do anymore. It was so magical to be a participant, I am glad that I can treasure that feeling, without the added stress of managing it for others. I discovered what kind of person I am, and how she needs the outdoors in her life, without it BEING her life.

You know what made every single part of my NOLS trip better?

Bringing chocolate. And baby wipes.