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The Purposeful Climb: Celebrating 40 Years of Walkabout

by Tally Flint

In summer 1997, as a 19-year-old student, I stood with a 40-pound pack on my back, gazing up at the steep mountainside I was expected to climb in zigzag fashion through a series of seemingly endless switchbacks. I watched as my teammates snaked their way along the trail with such skill and thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

I quickly dropped to the back of the line. The gap between the group and me lengthened. My body burned with fatigue, and I thought, “I can’t do this!” I’d never felt so weak, so vulnerable. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard an encouraging word in my ear. Teammates began turning around, cheering me on, their voices speaking what mine could not: “You can do this!” Slowly, painfully, I pushed forward until I reached the rest of my team, utterly spent. Despite my failings, they believed in me, and deliberately moved me to the front of the group. Buoyed by their encouragement, I led them with confidence to the summit.

For the past 40 years, Azusa Pacific University’s Walkabout program has trained and equipped student leaders for service. The physical and mental challenge of spending 10 days in the wilderness, armed with only what they can carry on their back, changes lives—not only the lives of the 3,000 students who claim a Walkabout experience, but also the lives of those they later serve on campus, and still others in their homes, neighborhoods, and throughout the world decades later.

That ongoing impact began in 1974, when Sandy Ward, M.A. ’75, M.A. ’83, then a graduate student in APU’s College Student Affairs program, wrote his capstone project on an aboriginal coming-of-age ritual called Walkabout. In that tradition, boys ages 12–13 survive alone in the wilderness for up to six months. They focus much of their excursion on deep, spiritual reflection. As a residence director, Ward thought the practice would transition well into a leadership training program for Azusa Pacific’s resident advisors (RAs), student leaders placed throughout the university’s residence life communities. RAs live alongside their residents and help them face struggles and conflicts day and night with no separation between personal life and public service. Such leadership creates tight-knit community and shared experiences, but also the potential for burnout and overextension. Ward believed engaging in physical challenges like rock climbing, repelling, and hiking long distances, as well as learning to depend on Christ as a community throughout the experience, would condition students physically, emotionally, and spiritually for the intensity they would face as servant leaders during the following academic year. Moved by this belief, Ward teamed up with then-faculty member Tim Hansel, and the two of them drafted APU’s version of a wilderness-based “classroom without walls.”

In the beginning, APU contracted with Hansel’s outdoor adventure company, Summit Expeditions.By 1980, APU transitioned the Walkabout program under its own care. “Insourcing Walkabout became my responsibility when I was hired as coordinator of student services in 1976,” said President Jon R. Wallace ’76, MBA ’78, DBA, who oversaw the acquisition of equipment and the development of its guiding system. “We wanted to develop the program into something that would have maximum impact on the participants and immerse them in activities that would teach them true servanthood. We believed there was something about making everyone equal—with a pack,blisters, hunger, cold—that would achieve that.” As the adage suggests, misery loves company.

Likewise, victories become sweeter when shared within a group that fights in unison toward the goal. Shared challenges bond people. If student leaders could learn how to create community within their Walkabout team under such circumstances, they would be better equipped to facilitate a similar sense of unity with their residents on campus. With that intent in mind, Walkabout creators designed key elements of the program that remain today: an extended trip into the wilderness in teams of 12–15, opportunities for rock climbing and repelling, a solo time of fasting and prayer, a dedication run at the end of the trip, and an Agape commissioning ceremony.

Throughout those grueling days, students come face to face with their limitations. They learn to push farther, relying on God’s strength to bring them to a place they never imagined they could reach. At the heart of that experience lies Solo: a 48-hour period of solitude, modified fasting, and spiritual focus—an intentional pause allowing students to seek the face of God and respond to Him. “Students listen for God’s voice and commit their lives to the year ahead,” said Wallace. “We ask them to build a circle of stones, sit in it, and dedicate themselves to God’s purposes.”

For many, Solo marks one of the most frightening and powerful parts of the trip. “A lot of students are afraid of the darkness, animals, or just being alone,” said Shino (Kuroda ’96, M.Ed. ’00) Simons, associate dean of students, who attended Walkabout for the first time as an RA 16 years ago. “When the sun goes down on Solo, when you are alone and cold, you have to remind yourself that God is in control. You have to trust in His sense of order, and that the sun will come back up. That’s when you feel His presence.” Through journaling, quiet meditation, and prayerful listening, students engage with God over what their role will be in the work He is doing in the lives of their future residents. They pray for each resident, sometimes envisioning each room or apartment in their living area. They present their service as an offering to God. “The turning point is really when they come back from Solo—how it impacts their depth of conversation and their understanding of what God is trying to do,” added Simons. “They return energized and ready to bond with their residents.”

“Stretching these students to their perceived limits, and then challenging them to go further, teaches them so much about what it means to be called to a leadership position—how to be the mentor who guides a resident through a difficult time, the friend who encourages when a resident doubts, or the person with enough courage to speak the truth in love when community is suffering,” said David Bixby ’78, M.A. ’82, Ed.D., executive vice president and longtime Walkabout participant. “Walkabout provides real-life challenges about relationships, faith, and life that call for encouragement and wisdom from trusted people. Our student leaders learn to become those trusted friends. Because they have tested the depth and breadth of their own capacity to overcome, survive, and thrive, they know they have enough in their tank to make it happen.”

These students leave the mountain keenly aware that community matters—that survival depends on it. “Being part of a group—learning how to be vulnerable and trusting each other—bears applications on campus and in life,” Simons said. “When students complete the rock-climbing and repelling portion of the trip, they learn to walk up a rock wall or pick their way down a cliff while connected to another person with a rope. The very act of taking one step must be managed by proper communication and the reliance on another human being. Without community, both activities would be impossible.”

By practicing how to ask for and offer help, how to exercise humility and extend grace, the student leaders learn to become vulnerable and trust others, a lesson that deepens through life-sharing, a key Walkabout element. Traditionally, each member tells his or her story to the rest of the team. Encircled in a supportive environment, students open up in ways they never would under normal circumstances. “On day three, they dive headfirst into community—fully acknowledged and recognized. They experience firsthand what it feels like to be seen, so they understand the importance of doing that for those in their care back on campus,” said Simons.

When Todd Williams ’13 approached his trip, he wondered how his community would receive him. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Williams walks with a pronounced limp and often pushes himself to go the extra mile to demonstrate his abilities. “The biggest challenge for me was dealing with my need to prove myself to people,” he said. “I soon found that my team treated me like everyone else, which was huge for me.” But Williams quickly realized that his own performance and feelings were only part of the bigger lesson God wanted to teach him.“Living together in the wilderness requires team members to not only care for themselves, but also serve others to make sure we could all go the distance,” he said. RAs must balance the individual needs of residents with the broader health and success of the whole living area. When one resident struggles, it can impact the rest of the community, and it falls on the RA to cultivate a culture of mutual support and encouragement.

Part of knowing how to extend that encouragement to others comes from realizing just how much you are capable of yourself. One of Williams’ highlights was the 3-, 6-, or 9-mile run students complete at the end of Walkabout. “Jon Wallace explained that even though our trip was over, it was time for us to go the extra mile for someone else,” he said. Students dedicate the run to someone in their life and write down the name to represent an act of service when they are physically spent. “[In leadership], we might be done with class, the staff meeting may be over, but then a student needs our help. It’s that knock on the door at 2 a.m., when we have done all that is required of us, but we get up to go the extra mile to be a servant leader.”

These lessons stick with attendees long after their 10 days end and the muscle aches vanish.For Cheri (Hacker ’98) Harris, Walkabout sparked a lifelong love for the wilderness experience and its unique predisposition as a training ground for servant leadership. As a member of Bixby’s 1998 team, Harris rallied her teammates to go for a swim in the icy waters of a mountain lake. Today, she channels that zest for adventure into a ministry to the international backpacking community in the wilderness of the Andes, along with her husband, Dylan, a former Walkabout guide. “Truly, the Lord used Walkabout to not only bring me to my husband, but to also equip me with the necessary skills to build a foundation for outdoor ministry,” said Harris. “It was the beginning of a beautiful adventure—of a life lived out in reckless abandon for His Kingdom.”

When the students of Walkabout 2014 close with their Agape commissioning service this August, they will have contributed to 40 years of tradition. All over the world, their forbearers apply the lessons of community, sacrifice, and a deep reliance on God in their day-to-day lives. Some, like Harris, do it through a commitment to ministry. Others translate their lessons into service in their careers, families, and local communities. Most have traded in their 40-pound packs for more urban tools, but they still live out the call to encourage, to dig deeper into life-giving relationships, and to seek out God’s vision for each new endeavor. Daily, they go out into their circles of influence, armed with a call, guided by a purpose they first encountered on the mountain.

A Walkabout alumni reunion is slated for August 11-14.

Tally (French ’00) Flint, M.A. ’04, Mt. Charmin survivor, serves as a consulting editor and columnist for Hello, Darling! magazine and lives in Denver, Colorado. tallyflint@gmail.com

“We wanted to develop the program into something that would have maximum impact on the participants and immerse them in activities that would teach them true servanthood. We believed there was something about making everyone equal—with a pack, blisters, hunger, cold—that would achieve that.” —President Jon R. Wallace

Originally published in the Summer '14 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).