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Being in the discomfort zone

Challenging situations can provide us an opportunity to change and grow, says David Wall, head of Nord Anglia Education’s global expedition programme.

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A day before he was scheduled leave for an expedition to Switzerland, Year 8 student Hugh Lowther told his mum he wasn’t sure he wanted to go.

“He was nervous with having to fly so far,” Hugh’s mother Kara Lebihan said.

“He’s done short trips within Asia, including several expeditions to the Great Wall of China, but this was him going outside of his comfort zone. But when Hugh returned from his trip, he had significantly changed. When he came back, his chest was puffed out...like he’d achieved something big. He was confident and happy.”

By successfully completing a two-day trek around the Alps, Hugh was able to overcome a challenging task successfully and, as a result, gained a lot of self-confidence.

Ms. Lebihan, who is also Head of Primary at Dover Court International School in Singapore, said Hugh liked physical challenges.

“It’s amazing for him to have something where he can push himself, see himself being challenged and be better than some people,” she said.

“He was able to shine, and that was an amazing feeling for him."

“When we got back home and we were unpacking his clothes, he said to me: ‘Can I go on the advanced expedition next year?’ He was so excited about the experience he had.”

Hugh’s transformation is not uncommon. David Wall, who runs Nord Anglia Education’s (NAE) global expeditions programme said the Personal Challenge expedition in Les Martinets, Switzerland goes well beyond learning about the physical rigours of trekking through the iconic Alps.

Students who choose the expedition are faced with a variety of challenges that grow them physically, mentally and emotionally.

“Some of them have never done their own personal admin,” Mr. Wall said.

“Often the bigger challenge is, can you get the equipment that you’ve been asked to pack into your bag and turn up at 9am ready to depart for the next two days – with your boots on?”

For other students, organising themselves is one of several challenges they will have to face during the trip. Mr. Wall recalls a trek he ran for students who, on top of being physically unfit, had grown up with domestic helpers; therefore, they did not know how to cook or clean. Looking at the tasks ahead of them, Mr. Wall said he was doubtful whether the students would complete the trek due to its demands. He realised, the plan had to change.    

“We got them to redesign the route and tell us what they thought would be a better option,” Mr. Wall said.

That decision became a turning point, enabling them to successfully complete their new route and gain a positive physical outdoor experience.

“It’s one of the best treks I’ve led,” Mr. Wall said.

“Many of them hardly exercised and they didn’t like PE because they struggled with it, and they didn’t like the competition element because they found it intimidating. Here, they learned how to engage in exercise without being competitive. Also, they were a socially strong group and supported each other to do something they had never done before.”

For other students, the physical and organisational challenges of the expedition are secondary to what they want to achieve. For example, students from China gain a powerful learning experience with the sheer natural environment that Switzerland offers.

“If we’re in the Alps, we can see glaciers,” Mr. Wall said.

“We can talk about glaciation, flora and fauna, concepts they learn in class but find it difficult to be passionate about. Some of them had never seen pine cones before. By being here, suddenly, these things start to make sense.”

And some students just want to make the most of a unique and - often magical - cultural experience.

“Many of them haven’t been to Europe before; they want to see what it’s really like,” he said.

“To eat a raclette. We take our culture for granted, but they think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. We want to identify and create opportunities for them to complete their challenge. That’s the whole point about an outdoor education.”

Read more about our global expedition programme.