Morgan Kelly (Class of 2019) recently returned from Darden’s Global Topics Course on Leadership to Patagonia. She shared some key takeaways and reflections with us. In her own words:

When people picture Spring Break, they usually picture all-inclusive resorts, fancy trips to Europe, or an adventurous vacation somewhere tropical. What they generally DON’T envision is an 8-day backpacking trip through the wilderness of Patagonia – navigating bamboo jails, landslides, snow, hail, rain, and some of the most gorgeous terrain I’ve ever encountered. But that’s exactly what 23 of my fellow Darden students and I did during our Spring Break this year. Darden teamed up with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to offer an experiential leadership course for Second Year students. We were split up into two sections of 12, with three NOLS instructors and one Darden staff member each (Sean Carr and Samantha Hartog made the trip down with us). We started at different ends of the same trail and had wildly different experiences.

Part of the fun and challenge of a NOLS course was that the instructors were NOT guides. Our guides had never hiked in this area before, and while they have more experience than we do in the wilderness, they let us make our own decisions (except in extreme circumstances). We were put into tent groups of four and our daily hiking groups were three other people (usually not people in our tent group). Each day, one student led each hike group, making sure the group was self-sufficient so if we didn’t make our goal for the day, we’d still be able to get water, camp, and make dinner and breakfast. We had two nights when one or more of the groups didn’t make it to the agreed upon destination. It wasn’t actually as big of a deal as we thought it would be at first. In fact, one of my favorite nights of the whole trip was when we were alone at our goal for the day and had to sleep 5 to a tent – students plus instructor. It was freezing outside and had started to snow, but we were cozy inside the tent. We had some chocolate that we passed around, traded stories and riddles, and even had a singalong with a ukulele that our instructor had brought.

NOLS teaches you how to both thrive and survive in the wilderness, so I learned everything from what clothes to wear in all sorts of weather to cooking pizza on a small camp stove in a cow field. What I wasn’t expecting was how poignant the leadership lessons would be. During the day in which I was the designated leader, I was surprised by the level of responsibility I felt. I generally don’t have trouble making decisions, even unpopular ones. We had a decision point where we could either backtrack and find a trail, or bushwhack straight north to the agreed upon campsite using our compass and map. After chatting with my hiking group, I felt strongly we should go north, but we were not all aligned. Since I was the designated leader, I had the final call, and chose to go north. Shortly thereafter, as I was leading us north, checking the compass every so often and trying to find the best route amongst undergrowth and over fallen trees, I became filled with self-doubt. I had to pause to collect my thoughts and figure out how to keep going forward through the uncertainty. The immediacy of the consequences of my decision really hit me in that moment: if I was “wrong” and we didn’t hit the river that I was looking for, or we came upon an unforeseen obstacle and had to find another way around it, I was condemning my group to another night of not making our goal campsite. I put “wrong” in quotation marks because as it turns out, the trail we could have gone back for was an easier way to the campsite, but either way we did make it to our goal. However, we made it to the river and hiked in the streambed (probably the coolest part of our hike that day!). We traversed the riverbed back and forth, hopping from rock to tuft of grass to gnarled tree and back again, watching the sun fight through the rain showers while we discussed how we felt like we were walking through a scene from Lord of the Rings. In the debrief from that day, as I was receiving my feedback, we all discussed my moment of insecurity and how it looked to someone who was observing me and who had decided to follow me, for better or worse. I really and truly felt the responsibility of leadership and learned lessons during that 8-hour span that I will remember not only while in an outdoors setting, but also most importantly in an office setting while leading my peers or subordinates to a common goal.

It’s funny what you remember from trips like this – the ukulele and the chocolate – not how frozen my hands were before we got in the tent, a spectacular moonrise on our second to last night – not how grumpy I was the second night when we didn’t make our goal, an entertaining made up story while watching shooting stars with my tent group – not the thorns and branches I had to dig out of all layers of my clothing. I relished not being connected to the outside world for 8 days. I was able to enjoy the views, good meals, and conversation with my classmates while not scrolling mindlessly through Instagram. I was proud of myself for carrying what was originally a 54-pound pack. I was thankful for the opportunity to struggle through uncertainty and adversity in a leadership role and learn from it through feedback sessions with my classmates. I am a stronger outdoorsman, a better communicator, and a more confident leader thanks to my experience in Patagonia.