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Student Experiences

From Campus to Tundra

On a unique experiential learning opportunity, a group of experience design and management (ExDM) students and faculty from the BYU Marriott School of Business traveled through the Alaskan frontier. For two weeks, ExDM students camped across the state to learn how exposure to nature as well as having passion and perseverance can help improve quality of life.

Grit, Nature, and a Good Life

“We were learning about nature’s impact on us, and we needed to spend an extended period of time in the wilderness to do that,” says Brian Hill, ExDM professor and instructor for EXDM 311: Advances in Positive Psychology.

A group of students sitting on a grassy mountain overlooking a vast mountain range and river.
The class held a discussion about nature during a hike in Denali National Park.
Photo courtesy of Ellie McClure.

Instructors organized the class to be a follow-up course for EXDM 300: Creating a Good Life in Experience Design. “Each student in the major is required to take EXDM 300, where they learn about a wide range of topics in positive psychology,” Hill says. “This class was meant to be an opportunity for us to dive into important topics we didn’t have time to explore in EXDM 300.”

Students read the books Grit by Angela Duckworth and The Nature Fix by Florence Williams to help focus their mindset before the class set out for Alaska. “We took turns leading daily discussions in the class, which helped us learn about the importance of developing grit and spending time in nature,” says Alex Rasmussen, a pre-business sophomore from Logan, Utah. “Because of the things we learned from our books and in our discussions, we wanted to make the most of our experiences in the outdoors.”

Practicing Perseverance

Psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Students worked to develop grit by camping for two weeks in the Alaskan wilderness amidst massive mosquitoes and rain storms.

“The rain soaked through our tent once, and I was irritated. We had to move our tent in the middle of the night.” says Maggie Holt, a sophomore in the ExDM program from Mesa, Arizona. Other students in the group pitched in and helped their rain-soaked classmates relocate the tent.

Learning about grit helped the students enjoy the experience regardless of misfortune. When rain poured almost the entire time during two different hikes in Denali National Park, Rasmussen says that “Everyone stayed positive and kept moving forward, even though most of us were sopping wet.” The group staved off curious grizzly bears, crossed glacier-fed rivers, and trekked over frozen tundra.

The group of students and a river guide stand in front of a pile of large blue rafts.
The class rafted Sixmile Creek in Alaska.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Allen.

Another day, outfitted with dry suits, the group white-water rafted Sixmile Creek, a frigid river full of technical class four and five rapids. “I was nervous at the start but ended up being really surprised with how much I loved river rafting,” Holt shares.

After safely exiting the river, Hill reminded students that while talent matters when they pursue a goal, effort in reaching a goal matters most. “This was an intentional experience that was designed to advance personal understanding of grit, passion, and perseverance,” Hill says. “They’re doing something hard in the wilderness. It just so happens that being in nature and practicing grit fit together perfectly.”

Awe in Alaska

Co-instructor and ExDM professor Patti Freeman shares, “It is wilderness for me that impacts my soul. Large sections of undeveloped land and the vastness and wildness of the Alaskan wilderness amplifies feelings of being connected to nature.”

For each student in the class, this was their first-time visiting Alaska, and they learned why many people call the state “the last frontier.” Hill explains, “I chose to take this class to Alaska because I wanted students to experience that wild, off-the-grid nature that isn’t easy to get.”

Students sitting on a boat off the coast of Alaska
Students toured Kenai Fjords National Park by boat.
Photo courtesy of Jake Holt

While in Seward, Alaska, the group toured Kenai Fjords National Park by boat, spending a full day on the water, watching humpback whales, puffins, sea lions, porpoises, and glacier-capped mountains under clear, blue skies. “It was really refreshing being able to take a break from the busyness of everyday life and go off into a remote part of nature,” Rasmussen says. “Now I feel revitalized. I especially want to get in the outdoors more often.”

While on a bus in Denali National Park, the group watched a sow and three grizzly cubs trot along the road. “It was hard to believe we actually saw grizzly bears like that,” Hill says. In the remote areas of the park, the class observed dahl sheep, more grizzly bears, Alaskan moose, fresh wolf tracks, and spectacular views, and the students were surprised with how much these sights affected them. “I’ll never forget how it felt to see those animals the way we did,” Holt says.

A grizzly bear mom and cubs walking down a muddy road.
Students and faculty saw a variety of wildlife during their time in Alaska.
Photo courtesy of Jake Holt.

In those moments, Hill explained to students that awe is the feeling they get when they’re enriched with inspiration, appreciation, and compassion. Hill says, “Experiencing awe changes the way we enjoy our lives.”

Alaska’s Lessons in Positive Thinking

After days hiking through rugged wilderness in Denali’s backcountry, students and professors packed up camp for the fourth time. They made their way south toward Sunshine Creek for salmon fishing near Talkeetna, Alaska.

Salmon fishing in Alaska presented some challenges because the number of salmon returning to their spawning ground fell far below average numbers. The students and professors persevered on the banks of the creek and eventually reeled in some fresh fish. Holt recalls, “It took me thirteen hours to catch a fish. I had to stay positive or else I would have given up.”

Two students stand next to a river and another student holds a fishing pole out over the river.
Student fished for salmon near Talkeetna, Alaska.
Photo courtesy of Maggie Holt.

Holt and the others traveled home with their own fresh-caught salmon as well as a sense of pride in their efforts to overcome difficult situations. “I felt like I accomplished something hard,” Holt says. “Looking back, that made the class an amazing experience.”

The accomplishment Holt describes is the takeaway Hill was hoping for while the class was in Alaska. “Here, students are overcoming challenges in the wilderness,” Hill says. “They're connecting with nature and they have to learn to persevere. These moments help them live a better life.”


Written by Jake Holt