By Marit Gookin, Staff Writer
In 1965, World War II veteran, renowned mountaineer and Lander resident Paul Petzoldt had an idea: A new outdoor school, intended not to be a competitor with the already-existing Outward Bound but instead to train people to lead Outward Bound courses. With the support of a handful of other Landerites, NOLS (which at the time stood for National Outdoor Leadership School) was born out of a small house near the Rise in Sinks Canyon. Over 50 years later, NOLS is one of Lander’s major employers; with 14 different locations worldwide, NOLS’s headquarters and its perennially popular Rocky Mountain courses are still based out of Lander. This year, a new leader will be stepping up for the leadership school.
“I have a bunch of things that I’m going to try to achieve,” remarked Sandy Colhoun, NOLS’s new president. “Our core product is extraordinary … We’re a complex organization with a lot of amazing places where we do our work.”
Colhoun, who served as NOLS’s interim president for several months prior to taking on the position in a more permanent role, is not stepping into the job at an easy point in the school’s history. Like many other organizations, NOLS was notably impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; between 2019 and 2020, it saw a drop off in expedition student field days (that is, the number of days spent in the field by all students added together) of over 50,000. While those numbers initially bounced back, they dropped again in 2022. So far in 2023, NOLS has had only about 90,000 expedition student field days, compared to over 116,000 in 2019 – and NOLS has additionally struggled with staffing shortages over the past few years.
“I’m incredibly optimistic for the future of NOLS – we do have some financial challenges that we need to get past,” Colhoun commented. “We need to explore new opportunities … What we want to do right now is focus on what we do best.” One key piece of NOLS’s enrollment issues, Colhoun said, is that NOLS isn’t well-known outside of the outdoors community – despite being one of the world’s most well-respected outdoor schools. He hopes to change that.
“The DNA of NOLS is our risk-mitigation program. I think we’re the best in the world at risk mitigation.” Colhoun observed. “Our job is to elevate the leader in everyone … We are going to be leaning into our role as the world’s preeminent leadership school.”
In the past, NOLS has at various times had to close some of its locations around the world (previously referred to as branches, NOLS now describes these locations as campuses). Colhoun said that while there are no current plan to close any of its campuses, he plans to take a hard look at each campus and evaluate “whether it makes sense to keep those open.” Lander and the Rocky Mountain campus, however, are not among the locations under review.
“Lander, Wyoming, is the ancestral home of the school,” he remarked. “We are forever committed to Lander.”
Previous NOLS presidents and directors have had different visions for the school’s future; some have emphasized engagement, trying to compete directly with organizations such as Outward Bound, while others have tried to focus on what makes NOLS unique. Colhoun, who previously worked at Colby College in Maine, brings a background in education that reflects one of the aspects that makes NOLS different from many other organizations in the realm of taking people into the outdoors.
“We are a school. Drawing directly from that, our course leaders are not called guides, they’re called instructors,” he noted. Colhoun hopes to grow NOLS’ partnerships, from expanding its long-standing relationships with organizations such as REI to increasing its partnerships with schools and colleges. Currently, two of NOLS’ most visible partnerships are with NASA and the U.S. Naval Academy; since the early 2000s, every U.S. astronaut has completed a NOLS course as part of their training, and the Naval Academy similarly sends dozens of midshipmen to NOLS every summer.
“We are just blessed to have the partnerships that we do with NASA and … with the U.S. Naval Academy,” Colhoun said. He recalled that, when visiting the Naval Academy in Annapolis recently, he spoke with the admiral in charge of the academy. The admiral told him that he loves NOLS and what it does for midshipmen, “because they face real-world consequences.”
Colhoun also plans to work on streamlining some of NOLS’ internal systems, including continuing work started under a previous president to centralize its database. NOLS has in the past had separate databases and systems for different aspects of the school; for instance, NOLS expedition courses and NOLS Wilderness Medicine courses used two entirely different databases and admissions systems for many years. It will likely be about 18-24 months before the database project is completely finished, he said, but even with the data migration partially completed the school is already starting to see time- and effort-saving benefits.
He is also looking to make NOLS a household name, utilizing partnerships to do so. Every year, he explained, NOLS teaches at least 20,000 wilderness medicine students. “The vast majority of those people have never heard of our school,” he noted; most of those students sign up for the courses through NOLS’ partnership with REI. Those students, he pointed out, provide an incredible opportunity to help spread awareness about what NOLS is and does.
With the annual Wilderness Risk Management Conference having recently wrapped up – an industry-wide event NOLS helped found and continues to help organize – NOLS remains a highly respected leader in terms of both knowledge and skills in the field of outdoor education. Colhoun hopes that, moving forward, NOLS can dial in on the things it has always excelled at while continuing to expand the school in ways that will help bring in more students – that it can strike a balance between those two goals that will help it recover from the financial challenges it has seen in a post-COVID world with an increasing number of competitors.