Reaching Outside the Comfort Zone

First, let me share some background on myself to give you some context for this post: I am originally from Upper Arlington, Ohio—less than 5 minutes from OSU campus. I attended The Ohio State University alongside 50% of my high school graduating class. During undergrad, while most of my high school friends could pinpoint exactly where they wanted to be 5, even 10 years from then, I always felt unclear about what I wanted out of life and unsure of how to figure it out.

In my junior year of undergrad, while many of my friends were securing study abroad opportunities, I knew I wanted to do something different, something that would challenge me and hopefully reveal to what I didn’t already know about myself—strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities. I wanted to know it all! I found National Outdoor Leadership School through a friend of a friend, and I embarked on what was to become one of the most rewarding and bizarre experiences of my life…

I slept in a sleeping bag for 85 consecutive nights next to 16 strangers who would soon become my closest friends. We backpacked through remote sections of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico and the Galiuro Mountains in Arizona, carrying everything on our backs that we needed to survive for 3 weeks at a time. We climbed the incredible granite domes of Joshua Tree National Park– powered by bacon, coffee, and laughter. We navigated class-3 rapids in whitewater canoes on the Rio Grande, paddled past Mexican military clad with automatic weapons, and didn’t see another human being for 18 days. The vastness of the wilderness was exhilarating, humbling, inspiring, and terrifying all at the same time, and I came to learn more about myself than I ever expected.

When I graduated from undergrad, I knew I wanted to marry my education in psychology with my passion for the outdoors to facilitate meaningful experiences for others who might benefit. I took a job as a Field Instructor for Evoke Therapy Programs helping struggling adolescents and young adults work through depression, drug addiction, trauma, and motivational/behavioral problems. In this job, I worked a non-traditional schedule of 8 days in the field, followed by 6 days off. I saw recovering drug addicts celebrate 30 days of sobriety in the field over no-bake pies. I saw teenage boys with autism begin to challenge rigid patterns of thinking and to develop their first real friendships. And I saw adolescent girls with a history of self-harm come to believe that they mattered in the world. I count myself lucky to have been a part of the transformation process for the clients I worked with, whose stories continue to inspire me and put my own struggles into perspective.

Me and my best friend Taylor when we worked in the field. This was the equivalent "business casual" in the industry.
Me and my best friend Taylor when we worked in the field. This was the equivalent of “business casual” in the industry.

It’s clear that the program I attended and the wilderness therapy program I worked for are very different. The takeaway that I hope becomes obvious here is that there is a certain inherent healing effect of being outside. I also think there is a deeper level of learning that comes from challenging experiences with real consequences—learning what is in and out of your control and how to adapt to adversity. I believe my experiences in the outdoors have shaped me into someone who can find hope and happiness in just about any situation, and I’m grateful for that.

If there is any piece of advice I would give someone who is uncertain about their path in life (and trust me, you’re not alone), I encourage immersing yourself in an experience that you’re afraid of. I’m talking the thing that you always wished you could do but could never actually imagine yourself doing. There is deep self-discovery and self-awareness that comes from pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone.

backpacking, Ohio State, High Sierras
The OSU Outdoor Adventure Center traveled to the High Sierras last summer. Seriously awe-inspring stuff.

The great part about OSU is that we have access to so many different experiences– so many that I hear people talk about how they struggle to fit in everything they want to do. Well, here is one more for you: the OSU Outdoor Adventure Center. Of course there is the famed indoor rock climbing wall, but what a lot of people don’t know is that as students we also have access to adventure trips. From rock climbing, to sea kayaking, to dog sledding—there is really something for all seasons and to suit all tastes. The best part is that there is no experience required for most and all are welcome.

rock climbing, OSU
Indoor rock climbing wall at OSU during the Valentine’s day climbing competition. Participants were held together by a paper chain and had to complete the climb together. They also do other silly stuff, like zombie themed climbing hours for the premier of the Walking Dead.

I can’t emphasize enough the benefit of pushing yourself to challenge fears, insecurities, an preconceived notions of your own limitations. From my own trips, I’ve learned to work with diverse teams, lead others in high pressure situations, and accomplish stretch goals with limited resources. These are all skills that translate remarkably well to “real life,” and that I plan to leverage in work and life in the future. Get out there!

“Undergraduate Buckeye” vs. “Graduate Buckeye” So Far….

I am about one month into the MHRM program. It is crazy how fast it has gone by! We are already almost at the halfway point of the first semester. That means 1/8th of grad school is almost done and we are finishing two of our half-semester core courses. It’s exciting!

After reflecting on the past few weeks, there have been a few ways that being a graduate student at Ohio State has been different from being an undergraduate Ohio State student.

Here are the comparisons that I came up with:

1. My MHRM classmates vs. Psychology classmates: Even just knowing these people for a few weeks, I already have gotten to know more people at a faster rate than some of the people I took classes with as an undergraduate. Though I still have a few close friends in my Psychology program, it’s cool to have this type of community in the graduate-school classroom environment.

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2. Group projects. Group Projects. Group Projects: Classes in undergrad are very much lecture-based. It worked for large Psychology classes. In my MHRM classes so far, we have done a lot of group work already. It’s beneficial because it’s allowed me to work with a variety of people in many different capacities.

3. The importance and joy of reading for class: I am looking at reading for classes a bit differently now. It has been awesome to “go deep” into such a specialized topic and to know that I am gaining knowledge in a field to equip me for my future. At the same time, I loved my Psychology classes because of their broad scope; they helped me get a “big picture” and gave me enough knowledge to apply much of what I learned to graduate school now. In my MHRM classes, it is important to come to class prepared and the reading has actually be quite enjoyable!

4. The Internship Search: Psychology was pretty broad and internships needed to be actively sought out. Here at Fisher, there are a multitude of opportunities and support to help us find our summer internship (a large part of our curriculum!). It has been a bit overwhelming with job applications, information sessions, and networking but hopefully it will soon pay off.

5. Buckeye Spirit: If one thing is the same, it’s the Buckeye spirit! What I love about Ohio State is the intense school pride that we all possess. I’m happy to share that with all my graduate school classmates, too. 🙂

With even just a few weeks done in the program, I have already learned so much. I am excited for all that is yet to come!

Go Bucks,
Nikki Villoria