The Gift That Keeps on Giving: Celebrating 20 Years of the Adirondack Semester | St. Lawrence University

The Gift That Keeps on Giving: Celebrating 20 Years of the Adirondack Semester

Sunday, January 12, 2020

When asked how the Adirondack Semester has impacted my life, it is not a question of how, but how did it not. This off-campus program shaped the majority of my St. Lawrence experience and has directly contributed to the life I lead today. The way I think, the people I choose to spend my time with, the activities I enjoy doing; these are all direct results of the three months I spent living off the grid in a yurt with no running water and no technology. Coming from a suburban upbringing, living simply and close to the land like this was like stepping into a fairytale. Suddenly, I was meeting farmers, artists and outdoor educators who relied on the land and their community to make a living. Their lives were measured by happiness and fulfillment rather than money or careers. This was a lifestyle I had only ever dreamed of, but here were people making it work in our modern age. 

On October 13th and 14th, the Adirondack Semester celebrated its 20th anniversary with a simple, yet intentional gathering on the shores of Massawepie Lake, the program’s home base. With roughly 150 people in attendance, some traveling from as far as California and Colorado, nearly every semester was represented by alumni. While certain parts of the program have changed and evolved over the course of its 20 years, it was apparent that one thing has remained constant: the mission and intention behind it. It is this option to trade a dorm room for a yurt, cars for canoes, and cellphones for stationery, that allows students to gain a better sense of who they are and discover more intentional ways with which to lead their lives. 

As I walked around the lake that I called home during this semester, I was struck by its beauty. Lake Massawepie and its immediate surroundings have hardly changed over the past seven years. I had forgotten how smooth and glassy the water was in the back cove, how the crystalline reflections of the hemlock trees in the water give off the illusion that they are growing down, rather than up. Despite it being mid-October, the loons still called through the mist. The heady scent of warm pine needles and decaying leaves brought me right back to the fall of 2012. I half expected to arrive at the little yurt village, Arcadia, and find my 11 other semester-mates sitting around the worn wooden table in the timber-frame kitchen.

One of the main philosophies of the Adirondack Semester is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation for the sense of place, and what better place to do this than in St. Lawrence’s backyard. The Adirondacks are the jewel of the North Country, her endless lakes, rivers and ponds, dense forests and ancient mountains rivaling the splendor of our National Parks. It was in the midst of this captivating scenery, that I learned to sit still and be present in my surroundings. In class we sat for hours observing old-growth pine trees and glacial rocks, dreaming of their history and writing papers on their origin. When we did overnight solo experiences, I was struck by the silence and the emptiness of having no one to talk to and little to do. I ate through my meager snacks within the first few hours and sang songs to fill the space between scribbling entries in my journal. I fell asleep to the rustlings of the forest, with a simple tarp and sleeping gear, and contemplated what it meant to be a social creature in a world where solitude is so crucial for self-development and yet often hard to come by.

While I always had a certain affinity for nature and the outdoors, it was on the Adirondack Semester that I learned to truly see my surroundings. The forest floor was littered with different mushroom species everywhere I looked. The colors at sunrise were subtly different than those at sunset; the pinks a little more vibrant and the oranges a little less deep. The wind in the trees had a different pitch when it was 20 feet above me in the outdoor classroom than it did while I took water quality measurements from a canoe in the middle of the lake. Each morning as I stood on the dock, I would search the dead trees along the shore for the resident bald eagle, my heart soaring at the faintest slash of white among brown.   

To participate in the Adirondack Semester was one of the main reasons I applied to St. Lawrence. I have a vivid memory of browsing the semester webpage, seeing colorful images of flannel-clad students bent over the kitchen table and ladling food onto plates. Another image had an overflowing shelf of fall and winter squashes. Besides cooking and eating homemade locally sourced meals every day for an entire semester, I imagined what it would be like to hike mountains for class rather than sit at a desk. How quiet it would be at night without the sounds of doors closing and late-night voices echoing down hallways of dorm buildings. 

Whether I acknowledged it or not at the time, I was also drawn to the program for the community. It didn’t take long for the 12 of us students to become incredibly close and open with one another. While I was fortunate to have been part of a wonderful FYP (shoutout to Curtin College), the bonds that are formed on the Adirondack Semester have a familial strength to them. These were people who I became completely and utterly vulnerable in front of, baring raw emotions and expressing my darkest fears to. 

I was not the only one to express such emotion during the semester. Our yurt village became a safe haven, a place where we could feel comfortable in our own skin, accept our imperfections and expose our hearts. By the end of our brief time together, the twelve of us students had supported one another through the passing of a grandparent, the questioning of sexuality and religious beliefs, and recovery from past sexual assault. It is the nature of the Adirondack Semester, and the community that it builds, that makes it possible for such pain and heartbreak to be unburdened and turned into healing and love. 

People always used to tell me that ‘College is the best years of your life,’ and I would think to myself: is it really that great? But that was before I attended St. Lawrence and did the Adirondack Semester. As a result of my time in the program, I found my way into the SLU theme house community. For the remainder of my time at school, I lived in the Green House with several other alumni from the program. We joked that the Green House was the Adirondack Semester ‘half-way house,’ helping ease the transition from the yurt village back to campus life. It was crucial to have a support system and space to process this readjustment and reintegration into society. Through the theme house community, I was introduced to the Outdoor Program, the campus canoe shack, and Monroe Family Climbing Wall. All of these activities greatly contributed to how I spent my free time on campus, providing me not only with a campus job for a few semesters, but a new network of friends as well as a way to stay active and engaged within the North Country community. 

Since graduating in 2015, hardly a day goes by where I do not think of the Adirondack Semester and my time at St. Lawrence. It is difficult to assign a value to this program when it has given me so much. I measure its worth in the vast network of friends I have across the country, willing to let me crash on their floor anytime. It is in my appreciation for details and keen observation, which lend to my artistic and creative work with which I hope to one day pursue full time. It is in my ability to sit quietly with myself, to be confident in who I am and to recognize when there is still room for growth.

Through one of the assistant directors from my semester, Emma Carlson, I found myself in possession of my first job, leading wilderness trips for young girls with the Chewonki Foundation. In continuing this relationship with Emma I was able to grow my leadership skills, knowledge and confidence. A few years later, Emma asked me to raft the Grand Canyon with her; which came at a critical time in my life where I was searching for a sense of direction. I once again returned to nature, putting myself in a position of vulnerability and eager to see how it would change me. As a result of this trip, I decided to move to Burlington, Vermont. As fate would have it, I landed a job at the University of Vermont Bookstore working as the art and office supply buyer where I report to another St. Lawrence graduate. Of course, I had heard lots about St. Lawrence’s famed alumni network, but never thought it would come through for me in such a big way and without even looking for it. Turns out the alumni network truly is everywhere. 

Coming back together in the Adirondacks this fall to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this program was a gift. It was a joy to hear stories from different semesters, watch alumni show their spouses and children around the property, and revisit old haunts. It was like stepping back in time but with 100 other people all with their own unique memories of this collective place and experience. From firing up the sauna and jumping in the brisk lake, to drinking coffee and watching the sunrise burn mist off the lake, my heart was full with appreciation for this program. Watching people hug goodbye in the parking lot as the weekend came to a close, it was apparent just how much love there is for this small yurt village in the Adirondack Park and just how many lives it has touched. Here’s to another 20 years!