TrekEpic revives tradition of youth self-discovery through adventure, made affordable through foundation support
Educational Consultant Andrew Bryan integrates countryside treks with educational counseling, core gift process to guide young adults
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Believe it or not, the ancient practice of young people going on an adventure to “find themselves” is alive and well. It’s just been updated as part of life coaching for young adults.
TrekEpic, which currently provides walking tours in England, Scotland and Wales, is the latest project of educational consultant and social entrepreneur Andrew Bryan.
“Going on an adventure into the unknown was a rite of passage for young people throughout time, teaching them independence, team work, problem solving, discipline and initiative,” said Bryan, TrekEpic co-founder. “When a trek is coupled with competent guidance and the core gift discovery process, we can lead young people to find a direction in life and the initiative to follow it.”
TrekEpic, which provided three, ten-day walking tours of England and Wales to fourteen young people in 2012, is the culmination of 24 years of Bryan’s work helping young adults navigate difficult pasts, learning challenges and behavioral issues to become productive adults. Bryan made his name in the young adult transitions world by establishing the Emerge College Success Program and is well-known as an educational consultant; he also has previously completed a three-year term as a national board member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.
“Everybody goes through a process several times in their life, where they have to find deep inner strength to get through a challenge – you hear about midlife crisis and it’s a similar transition from teenager to young adult,” said Kim Mlinarik, a therapist and international guide who has led several TrekEpic outings. “When they come out the other side of that challenge, they discover clarity and conviction they can use in their lives. We use the treks as that process.”
Treks are part of larger whole Bryan has been involved in youth coaching and teaching since 1989, starting in Seattle at college prep middle/high school for students with learning disabilities, then the Crossroads Learning Center and the Wholistic Health Options for Learning Effectiveness Program, as well as numerous other endeavors. Typical reasons for using Bryan’s services include Asperger’s, ADD/ADHD, family conflicts, lack of self esteem, depression, anxiety, drug/alcohol use, lack of motivation, immaturity or having a style of learning that doesn’t “fit the mold.” Bryan has been a Member of the Independent Education Consultants Association since 1998 and maintains numerous other professional memberships.
Since 1994, Bryan has been an educational consultant and planner, advising young people who need help with college selection, learning disabilities, therapeutic special needs school and program placement and the transition to independent adulthood. To fully implement his vision of educational consulting, he founded the Emerge College Success Program in 2005. Emerge is geared toward people just out of high school who want to go to college, but might need some additional oversight, tutoring and counseling to stay the course or older students restarting their college careers. Typically, Emerge students live in Boise, Idaho and enroll Boise State University, the College of Western Idaho or other school. Emerge life coaching includes visits, ongoing sessions, communication with parents, internships, volunteer and work opportunities.
“I see Emerge as a young adult transition process, not a program,” said Louise Slater, a South Carolina educational consultant who has referred clients to Bryan. “This process is highly individualized yet gives these young people enough structure to be successful, but without feeling they are in a ‘program’. “
Bryan co-founded TrekEpic in 2011 with Leslie Johnson and established it as a nonprofit, Epic Transitions.
“TrekEpic can work with Emerge so that we can provide a fully integrated set of services for young adults who need it,” said Bryan, who earned a Bachelor’s Degree in University Studies and General Honors from the University of New Mexico. “Students in Emerge may benefit from trekking or vice-versa. The treks, however, are not just for Emerge students. There have been a number of students who have participated in other support programs or who just need a seminal experience to help get their lives moving forward.
Bryan has become somewhat of a go-to person in the media for young adult issues. Bryan has been interviewed and quoted nationally on education related topics in The Seattle Times, The Lawlor Review, Post-Secondary LD Report, Newsweek, US News and World Report, The New York Times, CBS Marketplace, CBS Network Radio News, SmartMoney Magazine, KUOW’s Weekday, College Bound Teen and, most recently, LATalkRadio with Dore Frances. He also serves on the Baker 5J School District Board in Baker, Oregon, and has served on many volunteer, local government or nonprofit boards.
Leslie Johnson, a former special education teacher who co-founded TrekEpic, said trekking serves a vital function. Johnson’s son used Bryan’s educational consulting services but she sensed there was something more a program could offer.
“There are a lot of really amazing parents out there whose children struggle or lose their sense of direction and parents often need to seek guidance in helping their children move forward,” Johnson said. “Studies show that there is an increase in the number of young adults in the 18-24 age range who are unemployed and not going to school, who seem to lack direction.”
Johnson, Bryan and others began discussing what kind of transitional program might work well and the idea of a trek emerged. Johnson’s son participated in the first trek in Wales, in March, 2011 which didn’t have the Core Gift process and was more of a guided and contemplative tour. Nevertheless, Johnson said the experience transformed her son and was worth refining.
“It gave him time to reflect on where he had been and where he’s going and increased his empowerment and motivation,” Johnson said. “This was a great experience for us and I wanted to give back somehow, to help other parents in this position.”
Johnson approached her family’s foundation, the Hurlbut-Johnson Charitable Trust. The trust, administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, makes grants to cover initial development costs (such as legal and insurance) and to pay staff and organizers. Sixteen trekkers participated in 2012, most of without having to pay program fees, although they still had to pay for their transportation and walking-around money.
TrekEpic has gone completely over to a grant model, so that none of the participants have to pay for program costs. Johnson said helping a teen with counseling, treatment, tutoring and other services can be financially draining on families and granting the program costs makes the program more accessible. Second, the participants must apply for the trek and go through an approval process.
“It’s empowering that they can apply and get a grant apart from their parents and that makes them more vested in the process – it really is something each participant does for themself,” Johnson said.
TrekEpic makes a difference While Bryan has been able to improve the lives of hundreds of young adults in his career, he knew there was a missing component for some clients – something that could lead them to a sudden, life-changing discoveries to move them forward – and hit upon walking treks as a catalyst.
In 2009 and 2010, Bryan worked on an economic development project with Dr. Donald Chance, a former Virginia Tech professor, in Eastern Oregon to create a British-inspired walking trail as a tourist attraction. While that project hasn’t come to fruition, the idea stuck with Bryan. He conferred with Leslie Johnson and Dr. Chance and they saw a niche for a non-profit that offered something experiential and international. Eventually, they settled on the idea of walking treks. Bryan isn’t the first to offer treks in this manner; retired educational consultant David Denman used to take teens to walk on Mt. Blanc in Switzerland and several other businesses are offering treks. TrekEpic, however, is different because of its use of the Core Gift process, pioneered by organizational coach Bruce Anderson, to lead young people to a path of full adulthood.
“What’s unique about their treks is that they have incorporated the idea of finding and understanding each trekkers’ core gifts as part of their time together,” Anderson said.
The Core Gift method’s premise is that every person has the ability and desire to make contributions to the world around them, in the form of skills or gifts. There are gifts of wisdom, talent and passage and going through a difficult life experience develops a “core gift” that each person specializes in. During the treks, counselors lead participants through an interview process to discover their Core Gift. The participants are expected to work with each other on the discovery and development of the gift, whether they’re walking, having a meal or sitting around a campfire.
Hugh Camp, 21, went on an English trek in August 2012. He was studying at the University of Virginia and withdrew because he wasn’t able to focus. An educational consultant referred him to Bryan, who enrolled Camp in Emerge and later recommended Camp for TrekEpic. Camp is now studying at Boise State University to become a mechanical engineer.
“It’s a great feeling of accomplishment when you see a mountain range off on the horizon and at the end of the day you’re at the bottom of the mountains,” Camp said. “Everyone is looking for some kind of self improvement at some level. A trek is a difficult accomplishment but it’s attainable at the same time.”
According to Camp, a typical Core Gift exercise involved everyone going through a list of questions, such as naming influential people and their values, honesty and strong points. Participants then wrote down the answers and sorted those into different piles and look for themes.
“You see things you maybe knew about yourself but weren’t able to articulate. It really helped in identifying things you were good at and could be proud of – your gift,” Camp said. “Mine was about spreading positive attitudes and thoughtful conversation. The gift process allows you to condense that in a few sentences and when you know something like that, just being conscious of it helps you act on it more.”
Typically, participants walk from town to town, sleeping in bunkhouses, hostels or bed and breakfasts and occasionally exploring the country towns during the day, putting in up to 12 miles a day in walking.
“The trek opened my eyes and made me feel a lot more excited for my future and what I can do,” said Ryan Hickey, 21, who went on a 100-mile walk in Wales in 2012. “The trek helped me see the world has so much to offer and I got a glimpse of it. It jump-started my life.”
Hickey is currently enrolled in a culinary arts program at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon to become a chef. But he wasn’t consciously thinking about that career before the trek.
“During the trek, we would all talk about our lives and what we’d like to do. Everyone encouraged everyone else to find something that mattered to them,” Hickey said. “We talked about me cooking and developed that more and found my goal is to help people enjoy food they haven’t tried before.”
Hickey said his life had no direction and social anxiety made it difficult for him to move forward.
“Before the trek, I wasn’t doing anything with my life – I didn’t have a job and I wasn’t going to school,” Hickey said. “I really wanted to get out in the world and experience some of it. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that exhausted, but when you cover that much distance you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
Camp agreed, saying that being in such a different place, coupled with the exertion of the trek, definitely made an impression.
“It felt good to get out there and do something that was challenging and that I could manage,” Camp said. “All the walking puts you in a mental state where you’re teetering between exhaustion and euphoria and it contributes to group communication.”
That feeling is crucial to the success of the program, said Kim Mlinarik, whom Bryan hired to lead three TrekEpic walks. Mlinarik said they could hold treks in the United States, but the experience depends on removing participants from what is familiar to them; unfamiliarity forces participants to step into an unknown phase of life and hiking is a good metaphor for that transition. Mlinarik is developing her own international treks and she and Bryan regularly refer clients back and forth.
“Any time you are faced with the unknown, it brings up anxiety and fear and your belief system gets stirred up,” Mlinarik said. “It allows the shift in perceptions to happen on the external cultural level to break down the barriers internally. In doing this, they discover strength maybe they didn’t know they had.”
One of her main goals during a trek is to help participants discover their passions and think about careers that would allow them to pursue those passions. But first, their barriers to self-discovery must be broken down. This process is useful for addressing a common issue known as “failure to launch,” where people cannot take the next step to create their future.
“They get stuck and paralyzed and stagnant. We had a young man like that in March – he had never left the country and had a lot of anxiety and got injured early on in the trip,” Mlinarik said. “It led him to open up emotionally and be vulnerable to others and that led him to reevaluate some of the other choices he made in his life and how to overcome things. He had kept himself sheltered and it allowed him to make some shifts and plan for the future.”
Other times, young adults have been so busy following their parents’ blueprint, or rebelling against it, that they neglected to discover their own passions. Or they may have limiting beliefs.
“They might think, ‘I’m not going to be successful or I’m not going to be capable’ and we help them find the clarity within themselves to overcome limiting beliefs that hold them back,” Mlinarik said. “The physical challenge of hiking so much stirs up emotional issues, so putting one foot in front of the other is the same as going to college or starting a job in that you have to persist.”
At the end of the trek, students must consider how they will apply and develop their gift. Since the students don’t have to pay program costs, they are asked to do 20 hours of volunteer service in an area that will put their gift to use in some way.
As a fellow education educational consultant, Slater has used Bryan’s companies for a variety of purposes. Slater’s own son Luke went on a TrekEpic trip in 2012.
“Luke said the best part about TrekEpic was the time he spent with adults while literally walking side-by-side,” Slater said. “The trek helped him to slow down and take the time to make some decisions about what he needed to do to put his life in a more positive direction.”
Slater has also referred one client to TrekEpic, who then enrolled in the Emerge program. While in Emerge, the student has gotten a job, is re-taking and passing college classes he had previously failed and even tutoring a high school student. Slater said the trek was the catalyst for the student to put his life back on track.
“This particular student struggled with social anxiety, so it was not easy to get him to make the decision to go on the trek,” Slater said. “Once he did, he called his mother and told her how great the trip was and how much he was enjoying the people on the trek. The trek became a launching point for him to consider using Emerge.”
Currently, Epic Transitions is able to fund about 30 participants a year, but could expand to provide more treks if demand increases and if additional donors come forward, Johnson said. The organization is now working on expanding its fundraising and donor efforts to help sustain the organization and expand the trekking opportunities for young adults.
Mlinarik is so convinced of the ability of Bryan’s methods that she is now starting her own trekking company with plans to lead walks in Scotland, Italy, Thailand, Costa Rica, Spain and England. Instead of viewing Mlinarik as a competitor, Bryan has been helping her get established.
“That’s the magic of Andrew Bryan,” Mlinarik said. “There’s a small group of us in the industry that’s doing this cultural immersion and Andrew is very much a collaborative force. He’s been above and beyond in being helpful.”