Instead of gobbling down turkey and mashed potatoes this Thanksgiving, a group of Elon University students spent their Thanksgiving break hiking the Inca trail as part of the newest embedded study abroad class “Adventure and Wilderness Therapy.”

The course is rooted in the tradition of experiential learning. This approach allowed students to study cognitive therapy by participating in their own studies of the therapeutic human experience.

“The activities themselves are meaningful in terms of natural consequences for the client,” said Rodney Parks, university registrar, who led the course. “Reflection in the therapeutic process is critical, and functional change must have present as well as future relevance.” 

Parks’ own clinical experiences focused on adolescents who exhibited traits of oppositional defiance. Because of this, he structured the course on this age group, teaching applications of cognitive behavioral therapy that induces change. But rather than be spectators in the therapy process, students participated in the activities often conducted for patients with various illnesses and or disabilities with most taking place in nature.

Prior to the Peru excursion, the class met three hours a week at the fire ring on Elon’s ropes course. Students analyzed post-graduation anxiety, death, self-forgiveness and resiliency throughout the semester. Often, class time was spent sharing personal experiences.

“When we first started to get into counseling together, sharing our stories and opening up to each other, I was a little reluctant,” said senior Kaitlyn Mulder.  “It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I quickly grew to trust each member of our group, and to share bits and pieces of my story with them.”

After spending 14 weeks learning and planning for Peru, students finally began their 26-mile journey through mountains, cloud-forests and subtropical jungle to Machu Picchu — the Lost City of the Incas.

“I think the students would say [the trip was] exhausting,” Parks said. “The hiking began on the morning we arrived with a very aggressive schedule for the eight days we were in Peru.”

The beginning of the trip was filled with hikes into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, trips to local markets and explorations of the Sun Temple and Ollantaytambo, an archaeological site in southern Peru. The first two days, Parks said, were to give students a chance to acclimate before the big, four-day Inca Trail trek.

The Inca Trail is one of the top five treks in the world, and during their journey, the students and chaperones experienced drastic weather changes and strenuous hikes.

“Hiking the Inca Trail together only reinforced our bond and let us learn more about ourselves and each other,” Mulder said. “Each member of the class was so supportive through the physical challenges of hiking at elevation, and the emotional challenges each of us may be facing.”

At night, they camped and had class. Though much of the week was spent being physically active, students were required to remain academically engaged by journaling each night. These entries served as final essay responses, as Peru concluded the semester-long course.

While on the trail, students answered thematic questions from their semester discussions. Much of their writing was geared toward personal reflection and questions concerning what students had uncovered about themselves through the journey.

During the activity-based portions of the course, students focused on how relationship building, dialogue, communication and behavior change can work to improve mental health. Through outdoor experiences, students came to work toward solutions.

“Therapeutic activities require client motivation in the form of energy, involvement and responsibility,” Parks said.

With “Adventure and Wilderness Therapy,” students participated in similar manners as clients by working to understand and incite personal awareness and change through their outdoor adventures.

The Peru trip as part of the “Adventure and Wilderness Therapy” course is new to Elon’s curriculum, but may be here to stay. The course will be offered again next fall and will accept about 20 students.

Besides Peru, another embedded study abroad course will be offered this spring — “Philosophy Adventure in Iceland: The Crucible of Fire and Ice.” Parks said he hopes to see others offered in the near future as well.

“I got to lay in front of my tent watching the stars and talking with my classmates, now close friends, and I think that is something I will remember for life,” Mulder said.