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Where Are They Now: A Young Adult Reflects on his Wilderness Therapy Experience

Open Sky Alumni Student

Julian was a student at Open Sky from December 2017 through March of 2018. After graduating Open Sky, Julian attended an aftercare program and is now in the midst of pursuing a social work degree at Temple University! Learn more about his journey in the interview below.

Young Adult Alumni Student Julian E

Q: What were some of the challenges that led you to Open Sky? How did you feel about coming to a wilderness therapy program?

A: I was a student at Temple University and had just finished my third year, with little success and connection. I tended to isolate myself and my parents grew concerned. I knew I wanted to get help, but I didn’t know how. We found an educational consultant, who encouraged us to pursue wilderness therapy. He recommended Open Sky, specifically, and mentioned therapist Mariah Loftin by name. He said that it is a safe setting where I would be well looked after and well fed, surrounded by staff that truly cared about my well-being and success. It was a setting where I would get the individual attention I needed as well as opportunities to build relationships within my team community.

When I was young, I was a Boy Scout and so was comfortable in the wilderness and familiar with some of the skills taught at Open Sky. Despite that familiarity, the first two to three weeks were the hardest part of the program. I had to step further outside of comfort zone, dive deeper into my work, and connect with others in ways I had been avoiding for years. I had to really work on what made me feel alone and isolated, why I tended to isolate myself further, and how to feel okay with taking up space and sharing with others.

Open Sky alumni student with guides
Julian with field guides Jonesie and Becca (and field dog Mila!)

Q: How did your team, the guides, and your therapist impact your experience?

A: I was in Durga, a team of interesting and unique individuals, whom I now call friends. We all came to Open Sky from different places and with different challenges. It was fun to connect over both our differences and our similarities. With the skills I learned as a Boy Scout, I had the privilege to take on the “older brother” role at times, teaching my team members wilderness skills such as tying knots. I built confidence through this as well as through building new skills such as fire busting. It made me feel really valuable in our group community. Everyone was valuable and had their role in the team, bringing something unique to the table.

My guides were incredible. From the start, they felt like peers who really wanted to get to know me and not simply “fix” me. I found this to be incredibly important to establishing trust between us. I came to know that they always wanted what was best for me. I truly value the feedback they gave me, which will impact my life and relationships forever.

At one point, I was on run watch with a field guide, Nick. I asked him, is this fun for you, to be within arm’s reach of me at all times? He responded, no it’s not, but it’s what you need. It was evident that Nick and all of the guides throughout my stay were willing to put in the hard work, often in some not-so-fun positions, because they care and are there to help.

Mariah was a fantastic therapist. She made it a unique and individualized experience for everyone. She was an expert at “holding up the mirror” as we say, reflecting for her students how we are acting so that we can have a change of perspective.

One of the most important things she showed me was that she could both support me and disagree with me at the same time. At times I would think and ask, why are you against me? Why aren’t you choosing my side? I came to realize that she was never against me. She always supported me. It is so important to have someone that cares for you tell you something you need to hear, even when you don’t want to hear it.

Open Sky Alumni with dog

Q: Tell us about the circle of four directions and what it took to get to the East…

A: The circle of four directions is the work in the Student Pathway that leads students through the stages of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. It is also the process of transforming from a follower into a leader, and is a cyclical journey repeated throughout life.

The South is about physical care and growth. In the South, I tended to be emotionally charged because of being physically uncomfortable from feedback and immersed in a new environment. I was “one of the pack” and had to adopt a childlike attitude toward learning new things.

The transition to the West says, you’ve learned to take care of yourself physically; now it’s time to work on emotions. I spent most of my time at Open Sky in the West, diving into my work. It was scary at times to confront my emotional work so directly, yet incredibly necessary to my growth.

I was given a challenge as I prepared to transition North to lead my team throughout a hike back to base camp. Upon arriving to base, my guides told me I was now in the North. This was one of the proudest moments of my life. The confidence I felt in not only coming this far but also being a leader in my team is something that still motivates me. I started to lead this team and family, doing my part to bring it to an even higher level of success and fun.

I moved North with just two weeks left in the program. The idea came to me, I could make it to the East. At first, I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I was committed to doing whatever I could to make the most of my experience at Open Sky. The hard work I put in helped me get to the East before I graduated. The East is about stepping back as more of a mentor as others step into the leader role. It’s about shaping the sense of community and culture, leaving your thumbprint on the team for the future. When I was in the East, my work focused a lot on how I wanted to shape my future. I wrote a letter to my future self and created a plan for moving forward. It’s exciting to see that plan unfold as I continue in my personal work.

Open Sky Alumni Family
Julian with his mom in Boulder, CO where he attended aftercare.

Q: What has your life been like in the year since graduating?

A: Upon graduating, I drove seven hours with my family to Boulder, Colorado for aftercare. Spending time with family on that drive and reconnecting with them was extremely important to me. It was nice to have them by my side as I adjusted to the next step. Going right to aftercare validated what I had gone through at Open Sky. After leaving wilderness, I found that I was asking myself, did I really just do that? Did that really happen? Many of the students in my new community at the aftercare program had been through wilderness as well and could relate to my experience, validate how I felt, and encourage me in this transition.

I found a lot of success from going to aftercare following Open Sky. I graduated from Open Sky in March and stayed in Boulder until June. There, I was able to be held accountable to what I had learned and continue in the healthy lifestyle and mental health skills I had developed. I was able to pursue my passions by working in a music studio. During that time, I also talked to administrators at Temple University about re-entry the following fall semester. I decided to change my major to social work, based on my desire to help my community and those who are struggling, like I was able to do at Open Sky.

I just finished my second semester back at Temple. I am doing much better both socially and academically. I’m looking forward to graduating with a Social Work degree by 2022!

Open Sky Alum with dad
Julian with his dad in Boulder, CO where he attended aftercare.

Q: What sticks with you most from your experience at Open Sky?

A: I definitely think that learning how to be comfortable getting dirty is such a major life lesson. The very literal experience of being outdoors becomes a metaphor for life: you never get anywhere new by staying in your comfort zone.

Something else that has really stuck with me is: impermanence is permanent. When I came to Open Sky, it felt like whole world went on without me. The way I see it now is that everyone is going at their own pace on their unique journey. When I talk to friends about my wilderness experience, they may not fully understand but they can tell that I’m fulfilled. Before this experience, I didn’t know how to respond to my emotions. I wouldn’t take responsibility for my reactions. I now take accountability for myself and have learned skills to help with emotional awareness, connection, and relationships. Open Sky was not—and is not meant to be—a “one-stop shop.” I’ve learned that this journey is a continuous process and Open Sky helped prepare me to take an active and healthy role in it.

Q: What would you want to share with a student who is just arriving to Open Sky?

A: When I arrived at Open Sky, one of my peer mentors said to me, I can’t wait to see how you learn and grow here. Be ready to look at how far you’ve come because the change comes and it’s big. It’s not something you’ll believe the first day, but you’ll believe it weeks down the road.

This is what I would share with new students. Be ready—and excited—about the change that lies ahead. It’s been over a year since graduating and it’s interesting to look back at who I was two years ago and a year ago. It all feels like yesterday but also a lifetime ago. I’m reminded of my life-changing Open Sky experience every day.

May 15th, 2019

Open Sky Alumni Student