There isn’t much Laura Sowalskie fears. I mean, she’s practically done it all! Coming in as a freshman with knowledge of ropes, knots, and belaying, it was no surprise she turned to the Leadership Outdoor Orientation Program (LOOP) to fulfill her need for adventure. Not only has she climbed the elements of Syracuse University’s Flanagan Gym ropes courses “more times than [she] can count, ” but also she’s braved the challenge courses at Oswegatchie Educational Center and Adirondack Extreme Adventure. A natural leader, Sowalskie became a facilitator for the challenge course as a sophomore and has been working with Recreation Services ever since! Read below to find out how ropes courses have changed her life and the advice she has for those who wish to give it a try:
Tell us about your experiences on the challenge course. What sort of activities did you do? What was your most memorable activity?
LS: I had my first challenge course experience at the Oswegatchie Educational Center during the Leadership Outdoor Orientation Program (LOOP). I’ve been there 3 times now; twice with LOOP (first as an incoming student, then as a student leader) and once with a group called the Student Leadership Institute. I’ve climbed the elements of Flanagan Gym ropes course here at SU more times than I can count. I’ve also completed Adirondack Extreme Adventure with my family. I’ve done a ton of different elements including giant swings, zip-lines, and lots of climbing-related elements. My favorites are the more complex climbing elements that include traverses and extra challenges up in the air. I attended a few training sessions for the indoor ropes course my freshman year. I came in with knowledge of ropes, knots and belaying from rock climbing with the SU Outing Club. My sophomore year, I enrolled in the Adventure Activities class with Scott Catucci which really solidified my group facilitation and ropes course-specific skills. After completing the class, I started working as a facilitator.
It seems like you’ve done it all! What do you hope to accomplish this semester on the ropes course?
LS: Despite my comfort in the air, there is one element that I have yet to conquer. It involves climbing up a pole, balancing on the top and jumping off to grab a trapeze bar. I can fly up that pole and stand right up, but every time I’ve leapt off, the trapeze bar has remained just out of my grasp. Everyone has their own trapeze bar. It could be a different element. For some, it could be putting their trust in someone else and accepting that they won’t hit the ground if they fall. For others, it could be overcoming their fears and just getting themselves off the ground. For a few, every element on the course may be a breeze, but the idea of opening up to their team members may terrify them. My goal as a facilitator is to help everyone reach for their trapeze bar. Not everyone will grab it, but I want to get them as close as possible.
Why do you think outdoor education is important?
LS: I think outdoor education is awesome because it puts people in a non-traditional learning environment. This is especially important for students because they already spend enough time sitting in classrooms being lectured. Our goal when leading students through challenge course activities, is not to teach a direct lesson, but to encourage them to learn by doing. Different people will take away different lessons from an activity. Many learn that they are capable of more than they thought they were. Others learn to rely on their peers to help them through sticky situations. Just about everyone leaves with a sense of accomplishment.
It is often said that one learns new things about themselves and their teammates when they participate in a challenge course. What new things did you learn about yourself or your team?
LS: Going through a ropes course with a team is an amazing bonding experience. It helps a group really get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned that I naturally try to take charge of situations. When given a problem to solve in a group, I often take the lead and direct others. Going through challenge courses has helped me realize that sometimes I need to take a step back and allow someone else to take the lead.
What sort of professional and/or personal skills did you develop while participating in the challenge course program?
LS: Working on the challenge course has improved my communication skills, and my ability to work with different types of people. Most of all I’ve developed patience and understanding. Personally, I have very little fear of heights or falling. I’m almost as comfortable thirty feet in the air as I am on the ground. Most people do not have that same level of comfort on high ropes elements. My experiences as a participant, and especially as a facilitator have helped me understand how scary the experience can be for other people. Some people need that encouragement and support from others in order to overcome their fears.
What are you most excited about for the ‘Cuse Challenge Course?
LS: I’m excited to work outside! I’m definitely an outdoorsy person. Although I love our indoor challenge course, there’s a real thrill that comes from climbing around in the trees and fresh air that’s not quite there in a gym. I’m also pumped about the new student facilitation team! For a while there were only a few of us certified to work the indoor course. For the past couple weeks I’ve had the privilege of working alongside an awesome group of people who will be among the first to work on the outdoor course.
Any tips or advice for people who have never done a challenge course?
LS: Try everything. Even if you climb five feet up and decide you want to come back down, that’s five feet higher than you would have gotten if you’d stayed on the ground. Don’t compare yourself to other people; your only rival is yourself. If you’re overcoming your fears, you’re succeeding.