I was eating lunch in the cafeteria when the siren went off. I jumped up and dashed outside as the truck pulled up. My classmates and I clambered on, and the truck roared off.
Twenty minutes later, I was raking a fire line on the side of a mountain, coughing from the smoke as the forest fire raced up the steep embankment.
At moments like this one in my senior year of college, I sometimes wondered if I had been getting away with something for the past four years.
My friends at other colleges hated their one-size-fits-all majors. Their classes were hard - but not as hard as getting an appointment to meet with a professor.
I created my own major. My classmates and I called our professors by their first names and often went to their homes for dinner.
I graduated just over a year ago from Warren Wilson College near Asheville, N.C., one of five colleges in the United States with a student work program. Each of the 725 students works 15 hours a week to operate the college. Students help teach children in Head Start programs and drive horse-drawn wagons to bring compost to the campus garden. Students work as carpenters, "webmasters," clerks, and farmers.
I served on the natural-resources crew, tending the 600-acre forest that is part of campus. The crew maintains more than 20 miles of hiking trails, plants trees, and mills wood. It also provides firewood (from fallen trees) and grows shiitake mushrooms under homemade, thatched-roof shelters. The natural-resources crew is the first group called to help the National Forest Service fight fires.
I learned in college that education could take place both inside and outside of the classroom. Every student completes 100 hours of community service before graduation. I worked in elementary schools, helped rehabilitate wild animals, and served at food banks.
Study abroad was also an important part of what we did. I learned about Latin American culture during five weeks in Mexico. I lived with two Mexican families and learned about gardening, politics, family life, and feminism. While we were building an outhouse in Chiapas, each day 5-year-old Amalia brought plums that she and her mother had generously picked for us.
My parents used to say that I majored in kayaking. I got lessons on racing kayaks and canoes from an alumnus who helped eight of us launch a paddling team. We coached a dozen peers, and in our team's first year, we rose to the top of the intercollegiate circuit and made plans to host our own race.
After that, I spent two summers teaching paddling at a resident camp for girls in western North Carolina.
The Human Studies major I designed for myself focused on the individual in society, combining courses in anthropology, sociology, psychology and outdoor leadership. When I graduated, I returned to camp. Naturally, my first job out of college was teaching community-living skills in the wilderness.
Graduates of my school don't often become CEOs, but we influence the world in other ways. We serve in the Peace Corps, teach in summer camps, create gardens in urban communities, and run for city council. We learn what is important to us.
My college experience helped me learn what I can do and who I am. With support from the college community, I learned again what my parents told me growing up: You can do anything you put your mind to.
Karen Grosskreutz is an outdoor educator and writer. She graduated from Warren Wilson College in December 1999.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society