SMC Students Go “Into the Wild”

Gaels Break Out of the Classroom for Some Open-Air Learning Experiences

Bay Area Wild class on cliff in Marin

Spelunking, camping, zip-lining, hanging out with llamas, elephant seals and tule elk. Yes, it’s just another day in January Term at Saint Mary’s.

SMC students often take advantage of Jan Term to sample experiences outside of their normal classroom studies, both on campus and in travel courses around the world, but several recent classes took them way out of the classroom and into the wild, without ever leaving the state.

California Gold

California Gold class on trailIn “California Gold,” an innovative month-long class designed by Kinesiology professors  Derek Marks and Craig Johnson, students had a chance to create and carry out their own adventures. Seven students designed outings and led teams of fellow Gaels trips that included indoor rock climbing, night hiking, a two-day trip to the summit of Mount Diablo, a hike on Marin County’s strenuous Dipsea Trail, camping in Big Sur, and a three-day winter experience in Yosemite National Park.

Spelunking studentOne of the most unusual expeditions took the class to Moaning Cavern, where students harnessed up and rappelled straight down about 165 feet into a yawning abyss  –  the largest public cave chamber in California. As if that wasn’t enough excitement, they capped off the day by racing each other on a 1,500-foot-long zip line.

“It was exhilarating!” said Oliver Palopo, a sophomore Engineering major, who described the course as “hands down one of the best classes I’ve taken.” Aside from the adrenaline-laced adventures, he particularly enjoyed learning survival skills, like how to set traps, build a lean-to, fish using a shoelace and a carved wooden hook, and light a fire using just a little steel wool and a battery.

“We made it happen ourselves,” sophomore Cady Cadiz said with pride. “And it was a good life skills class. It taught you how to work with people and have fun.”

For the student leaders, the experience went beyond adventure. “I had the opportunity to really challenge myself and take on responsibilities I would never have in most classes,” said Ember White. “This class was not only about exploring the outdoors but also kind of a crash course in what it means to be a leader, in every sense of the word.”

Watch a wonderful video made by class member Oliver Palopo.

Bay Area Wild

Bay Area Wild class on beachIn another class, “Bay Area Wild,” students savored outdoor adventures as a way to sharpen their skills of observation and writing.

Led by English Professor Janice Doane and Women’s Studies Chair Molly Metherd, the class introduced students to some of the great American nature writers, like Henry David Thoreau, Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, and then asked them to lend their own voices to the chorus of writers who have tried to capture the essence of the great outdoors.  

Doane, an avid hiker who has traipsed along the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, through Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, and up Mount Shasta, said the course was designed to be “an eye-opener, a new way to appreciate what you’re seeing in nature.”

Bay Area Wild written in the sandThe 24 students in the class climbed Mount Diablo after reading Jack Kerouac’s “Climbing Matterhorn Peak.” They hiked through Muir Woods after reading John Muir’s “A Wind in the Forest.” They painted “word pictures,” created walking journals and wrote more than a dozen essays apiece, like the one describing “your ideal hiking companion.” (One student wisely picked “a dog.”)

Freshman John Athens said he relished the chance to devote a whole month to experiencing the beauty of nature. “You get a different perspective than when you’re just walking with friends,” he said.

The expedition that made the greatest impression was a three-day trip to Point Reyes National Seashore, where the students stayed in an historic lifeboat station, so far off the map that there was no cell phone service, and woke up to elephant seals and tule elk in their front yard.

Sophomore Tessa Pearman loved the feeling of being “at the edge of the land.” And Vanessa Alvarez, a biology/earth sciences major, said she didn’t even mind giving up texting for a while. “It was amazing. I’d never seen anything like that before,” she said. “It was like a movie.”

View photos from the “Bay Area Wild” adventures on

Around the World in 28 Days

Student with llamaWho needs to travel to South America when you can trek with llamas in Redwood Regional Park? Who needs France and Spain when you can go wine-tasting and visit historic Spanish missions in Sonoma?

In the popular, offbeat class called “Around the World in 28 Days,” led by Adjunct Professor Ginny Prior, a veteran travel writer and local radio personality, students also explored the wild San Mateo coast and took in the streets of San Francisco and the Bay from a funky-looking seagoing vessel on wheels called a “Duck Boat.”

Mr. PicklesIn all their adventures, they were accompanied by their trusty mascot -- a bug-eyed stuffed frog called “Mr. Pickles.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games. The students also learned about travel writing from Bay Area stars, including Don George and Spud Hilton, and then they tried their hand at writing stories and blogs.

At the end of the class, they were commissioned by NPR host Tom Wilmer to create a 15-minute travel log on “Moraga and Environs” for his “Audiolog” show. The result is an eclectic portrait of the Moraga area, featuring everything from local wine, food and fairs to Gaels basketball and from Coptic churches to ice cream parlors.

Read the class Blog and watch the videos and podcasts the students created for NPR.

By Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications