Since 1994, the First Ascent program at Colorado Mountain College has offered middle and high school students a chance to improve their confidence and learn leadership skills through several days of outdoor experience paired with academic activities.
This year, the four-day program is available to 20 rising sophomores and juniors throughout the six counties, including Summit, in CMC’s service area.
Applications are due by May 30 and must include a letter of reference from an adult who is not a family member.
The mission of the program is to gather a diverse group of students and focus on the core values of leadership, said First Ascent program director Paul Edwards. The students work with one another in teams, as well as with adult counselors and several student facilitators — participants from previous years who have returned to learn more and help others.
The program is completely free to all participants, with transportation available if necessary. There are no academic or any other prerequisites to enter the program; students just need to fill out the application and submit a letter of reference.
“The program is often best for some of the middling students who need a little extra confidence, social skills,” said Edwards, “a little extra push to put themselves out there and take another step.”
After a day of introductions and ice breakers, the program takes students to the ropes course at the CMC Leadville campus, the rock climbing wall at Camp Hale and, last, on a hike up Mount Elbert, the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains at 14,440 feet. Leadership within the teams is rotated throughout the program.
“With the guidance of the facilitator, they’ll go through steps — what are the problems, who believes in what type of solution, how we can comprise, that type of thing,” Edwards said. “That’s what the whole program’s about; we require that. That’s what we’re doing in all of these activities.”
At the end of the program, the students should have a better understanding of decision-making, problem solving, collaboration and communication as they relate to leadership.
“We hope they come away with more self confidence, maturity in their decision making, more conscious of the things they do in a social environment, especially, which is what leadership boils down to,” said Edwards. “Ideally we want them to go back to their communities and schools and become leaders there, independently of the program.”
Leaders in the community
Mariana Velasquez-Schmahl started the First Ascent program as part of a TRiO grant application 20 years ago. TRiO programs are funded by the U.S. Department of Education to serve students from middle school through graduate school. First Ascent started as a mini-camp before expanding to a weeklong program.
“My passion for the program was to instill leadership for middle school and high school students,” said Velasquez-Schmahl, who at the time worked as the youth outreach coordinator for the college. “Through the years we took that, we took the First Ascent program and built onto it and created what it is now, which I think is a very good program.”
The program name came from a desire to represent the participants’ journey toward leadership and self-confidence.
“How do you get them into a program unless you call it something that resonates with them? So we tried to come up with (a name) that would instill in students something that would be valuable to them,” she said, “like your first ascent — your first ascent in leadership, your first ascent in learning these core values.”
Leaving the program was difficult for Velasquez-Schmahl, who moved on from her youth outreach coordinator position four years ago. But she still carries fond memories of First Ascent, particularly in the response from the participants.
“Some of them came back year after year,” she said, referring to students who return to act as assistants to counselors or even, after they turn 18, act as counselors and facilitators themselves.“And to me that said a lot.”
Velasquez-Schmahl also appreciated the support the program received from the college and from the community at large.
“I always thought middle school, high school was a good time to really learn those core values that you carry with you your entire life, so seeing the outcome of that just really made me very proud of not only CMC for allowing this program to continue, but the support the community gave,” she said. “They all believed in what we were doing and I just loved that, that it was such a community effort. … Our children are the most valuable asset we have.”
“The program is often best for some of the middling students who need a little extra confidence, social skills, a little extra push to put themselves out there.”
First Ascent program director