Stories from the Field

Empowering Young Women in the Outdoors

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Armstrong Scholars

Each summer, two NatureBridge educators lead a group of young women on a 12-day backpacking adventure in Yosemite's High Sierra. A world away from societal constraints and pressures, leaders create a safe and welcoming space for these young women to be and celebrate their true selves. Inspired by and in memory of former NatureBridge environmental science educator Joie Armstrong, the program encourages these women to explore, connect and develop a sense of self while immersed in the beauty of nature.

This year marks the 20th season of Armstrong Scholars and we’re thrilled to introduce our 2019 program leaders: Yosemite Educator Lizzie Hoerauf and Golden Gate Educator Melissa Gayle! 

Meet the Leaders

Melissa Gayle grew up in Bedford, New York, but considers the Marin Headlands, to be home. She has spent 11 years in the field of outdoor education, a career that she loves wholeheartedly. 

“I have been granted the gift of connecting young people to the magic of our wild spaces!” said Melissa. “... I love teaching environmental education because I get to witness students wake up to their wonder, silliness, respect and their own personal power.”

Growing up in Sterling, Virginia, Lizzie Hoerauf found a favorite outdoor space in Pisgah National Forest. This forest in western North Carolina is where she completed her first 10 backpacking trips! With four years of outdoor education and two years at NatureBridge under her belt, Lizzie is thrilled for the adventure of Armstrong Scholars this summer.

In the midst of the logistical preparation for the trip—selecting the girls, planning the route and designing the menu—we caught up with Lizzie and Melissa for inspiration on the upcoming journey:

What made you decide to apply to be an Armstrong leader?

Melissa: Joie Armstrong—her legacy is larger than life. Even though I never met Joie, her spirit has been one of my best companions throughout my time at NatureBridge. Her face was one of the first I saw when I arrived at our campus for staff training. It was a picture that hung on the wall, in a space I was not yet comfortable in, and I remember immediately feeling all discomfort drop away upon seeing her quirky smile. 

I am honored to co-lead 13 incredible young women through the challenges of the trail and to celebrate our unique identities while re-engaging with wildness. This journey challenges society’s perception of women in the outdoors and provides an avenue for us to remember our most primal connection to the land, and to one another. We are strong and we are the light that cannot be extinguished.  

Lizzie: My very first backpacking trip when I was 18 changed my life. I got a chance to have incredible amounts of fun while also thinking deeply about the world and who I want to be within it. I learned to be less afraid of taking positive risks and to appreciate challenges for all of the ways they help us grow. I applied to be an Armstrong leader in the hopes that I can help other girls experience this incredible growth that can only be found in the wilderness. Joie’s legacy teaches us all to find beauty within ourselves, each other and the wilderness. Finding and experiencing this beauty will be life changing for us all!

Being in the outdoors allows many of us to open up and be our most raw, true selves—which kids are sometimes told to hide. None of us fit into a box and programs like NatureBridge invite everyone, from whatever culture, ethnicity, race, gender, body, sexual orientation and life experience, to open up and fly, crawl, slither, drum, sing, samba or tip toe right out of the boxes we get stuffed into.
Golden Gate Educator Melissa Gayle

What are you most looking forward to?

Melissa: I am most looking forward to moments of laughter and silliness. I am looking forward to star-filled skies, socks off and stillness. To deep conversations, and to silence, to planting seeds of future dreams and to sunrise awe. I await those sweet moments of freshwater magic and songs inspired by our connection to each other and to the world. 

Lizzie: I can’t wait to see the creativity and thoughtfulness of the girls unfold into our journal pages for the trip! There’s no way to know exactly what deep conversations and silliness will arise authentically within the group, but I am excited to discover it together!

How do you think it will differ from other NatureBridge programs you lead?

Melissa: We will have the chance to be alone with one another for two weeks, and none of us will have had close relationships with anyone else in our group, prior to the journey. During the programs that I teach, I am usually accompanied by a chaperone or a teacher, and students are surrounded by their peers. 

This trip gives us all the opportunity to totally drop away from the identities others have assigned us, and allows each participant to discover one another's, and their own identities, as time goes on. We will not be rushed to create friendships or connections, instead we will have the chance to open up, engage and co-create our community organically. 

Lizzie: Most NatureBridge programs come through school groups, where the participants have relationships and social norms already established. On Armstrong, none of the girls know each other before starting the trip and we get a chance to be super intentional about the relationships and social norms that we build! The trip is also longer, in the wilderness for the entire time and focused on being as magical as possible.

What’s the most important thing that all incoming Armstrong Scholars should know?

Melissa: You are all powerful, beautiful and strong women. Each one of you has gifts and wisdom to share. If you can open up your mind and your hearts to teammates who may seem different than you—you will laugh, dance, sing, learn and shine even more brilliantly than before. There will be times when you may feel low, sore, frustrated, maybe even sad, but your perseverance will help you to grow and you will exit the trail stronger and wiser.    

Also… get physical! Carrying 50 pounds is heavy and tough to do (especially on your first couple of days)! 

Lizzie: Get ready to Gulp Life! Also, you can do it. Even when it’s hard, you can do it!

Outdoor spaces provide a sense of calm that students may not often get back home. They get to learn through experiences, rather than lectures, and learn so much about themselves and the world around them. National parks are here for everyone, and we want to make sure that everyone feels welcome here!
Yosemite Educator Lizzie Hoerauf

What do you hope will be the biggest takeaway for these young women?

Melissa: I hope each participant will hike away proud to be who she is, with confidence to stand up to or walk away from those who wish to tarnish her light as well as the light of others. 

“May each one of you walk with style and confidence—for each one of you has the ability to shake the earth”.  

Lizzie: I hope they will feel empowered to follow their dreams, go on amazing adventures and bring joy into the world!

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