Maryville College, Tremont, Mountain Challenge Offer Great Smokies Experience for teens

Maryville College, Tremont, Mountain Challenge Offer Great Smokies Experience for teens

By Amy Beth Miller, The Daily Times – Reprinted with permission

*This story originally appeared in The Daily Times on July 19, 2019

Teenagers completing the Great Smokies Experience describe it as life-changing.

One of the faculty members, Doug Sofer, calls it “an opportunity to earn college credit in one of America’s natural treasures and have a tremendous amount of fun doing it.”

Over the past dozen days, 10 teens from four states have lived at Maryville College and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont while taking a deep dive into learning.

On Day 2 they climbed the 60-foot Alpine Tower at Mountain Challenge, and on Day 8 they hiked Alum Cave trail to the nearly 6,600-foot Mount LeConte in the Smokies and back, an 11-mile journey.

“It was hard, but there was so much reward to it,” said Sam Loan, a rising high school senior from Chicago.

“You could see the whole, entire world, it felt like, from the top,” said Isabel Velazquez, a rising senior from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

They spent time in the classroom, reading texts and discussing issues, and they caught salamanders in the pouring rain and took night hikes at Tremont.

They visited the Maryville Farmers Market, talking with growers about sustainable agriculture and representatives of the Little River Watershed Association about erosion.

During their trip to Clingmans Dome, the group took a side trip to walk a few tenths of a mile on the Appalachian Trail.

“They came out with their backpacks on, and you saw the crowd part in front of them,” Mark O’Gorman, coordinator of environmental studies at Maryville College, described. “For the first time they got it, that these kinds of immersive events are different than what the traditional tourist will experience in the Great Smoky Mountains.”

“It’s a learning experience, but it’s a learning experience that is much different than a traditional classroom,” said Emma Chapman, a teacher naturalist with the Tremont. “You’re learning not just in a different place but in a different way,” driven by experience and curiosity.

“It’s life-changing,” Velazquez said of the Great Smokies Experience. “It’s given me a whole different perspective. It has changed my eyes to become more nature seeking and to appreciate the nature that I have seen.”

College, not camp

By successfully completing the work, students earn three credits for the Maryville College course Environmental Issues and Sustainability Studies.

The high school students knew it was a college course, not camp, when they signed up but grumbled a bit about the level of academic work. Still, they were excited about the experience.

“I learned more than I thought I was going to,” said Samantha Stacey, of Nashville, an incoming freshman at Maryville College who plans to become a wildlife biologist.

“Through this academic work I’ve learned to be much more observant,” said Loan, who has visited the Smokies often, staying in his family’s cabin.

“One of our course themes is ecology,” he explained. “There’s much more than meets the eye there, because ecology is about the deep network of relationships between things in the environment.”

Another student’s perspective of what nature means shifted, realizing that perhaps a gated arboretum that charges admission no longer fits their definition of a natural place, noted Sofer, an associate professor of history at Maryville College.

A student at the Western Michigan Academy of Environmental Science, Velazquez learned about a different type of environment than her home state. For example, in the Smokies a change in elevation is like a change in latitude on flat land, with the impact on the environment.

During a trip to the Tellico Reservoir she discovered something else. “I found a new love of paddle boarding while I was here,” she said. Along with the paddle boarding and kayaking, the students tested the water pH levels that day.

Through the program the teens also formed strong bonds with peers who have similar interests. “I didn’t expect to connect with the people here as fast as I did,” said Stacey. “Where I’m from people don’t normally care about the environment.”

They also disconnect from technology, faculty members said, no longer reflexively reaching for cellphones. One of their first activities at Tremont is a solo sit by the river, and the schedule includes lots of time for reflection and journaling.

Three-legged stool

Now in its seventh year, the Great Smokies Experience is a partnership of three organizations with shared values and a long history of partnership, the college, Tremont and Mountain Challenge.

“This is a great partnership that has worked to rebuild that connection (between Tremont and the college) and to highlight the region that we live in,” said Andrew Gunnoe, an assistant professor of sociology at the college.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park also has been supportive of the program, O’Gorman noted.

Mountain Challenge staff members see their role as providing support such as transportation and logistics, facilitating activities and ensure they are safe and fun. Sofer said, “They’re like the Marines of this course,” noting they also are wilderness first responders.

But O’Gorman said the Mountain Challenge staff also functions like teaching assistants, from answering questions after the instructors go home to giving students pointers Saturday as they prepared presentations.

Roland Parker was a student in the second year of the Great Smokies Experience and now is in his second year as a staff member at Mountain Challenge working with the program.

He grew up attending Camp Arrowwood and always felt the Smoky Mountains were a special place, but the course was like looking behind a curtain, he explained. “It got me to think about the environment I lived in at home in a different way, but also the places I’m visiting as a guest,” he said.

The experience also showed Parker what learning could be like in college.

“I didn’t really like school when I was in high school,” he said. “I had a hard time paying attention to things I wasn’t good at,” but the Great Smokies Experience allowed him to be immersed in a subject in a concentrated way.

“I loved my college experience,” he said.

“We made a program that we would want to take,” said Sofer, who said his life was turned around by his experience at another small liberal arts college. In addition to all the fun, the course gives students big, hard, open-ended questions with which to grapple.

The academics aren’t really the hardest part for students, observed Jackie Eul, in her second year working with the students as part of the Mountain Challenge staff. “The real struggle is not the work but it’s fighting staying up late to do your journals or staying up late to look at the stars or go to the falls or run and play hike and seek. It’s a different type of challenge.”

Registration in the Great Smokies Experience is limited and closes in the spring. Learn more at

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”