Kate Johnston '10, Freelance Outdoor Education Instructor
By Michael Gassner, Ph.D, Program Lead - Tourism Recreation and Adventure Leadership at Oregon State University Cascades and UWCSEA Alumni Relations
Kate Johnston '10
Freelance Outdoor Education Instructor
“What drew me to Outdoor Education was the balance between working with kids, being outdoors and having an active lifestyle.”
Growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) in Singapore and attending UWCSEA, my life seemed to be defined by two competing ideas of success that were grounded in two different value systems. The first being the UWCSEA definition - going out into the world, shaping it for the better and having a beneficial impact on people’s lives - and the second being a more economically-driven idea of success which meant working for a Fortune 500 company, having a certain type of car and apartment, making your way up the corporate ladder and earning lots of money. At times it was incredibly difficult to reconcile the two and I was often left conflicted. It took me a long time to ignore the social pressures and external voices, and listen to what my own internal definition of success was, which I think ultimately has ended up being a more UWC-esque version of the term.
After University I worked for some years as an Account Manager in Advertising before slowly making my way back to Outdoor Education (OE). For a long time I couldn’t see how working in OE fit into either definition I had for success and it took me a while to realise that it was okay if it didn’t. It took time to create my own version of what I felt success meant, and at the end of the day it’s one in which I am happy.
What was it at UWCSEA that stimulated your interest in the outdoors?
When I was a student at UWCSEA I remember being on OE trips and hating many aspects of it. I remember thinking “I’m never going to kayak again. It was horrible and everything hurts” after my Grade 7 Kayaking expedition, or “I hate being forced to trek at someone else’s pace” on my Grade 6 trip.
Over time these thoughts changed with self-reflection, and little did I know that I would be leading those same kinds of expeditions ten years later.
It was my Gap Year working on the Tioman program as a “Gappie” (almost like an assistant instructor) that really played a big role in my decision to work in the outdoors. During the program I was mentored by some of the Outdoor Education department and had an opportunity to witness students going through the same things I had. I had time to reflect upon my own experiences and feelings and understand the value in what these trips had taught me. That’s when things really became apparent to me – it was never just about trekking, or kayaking, but knowing how far you could push yourself and taking things one step at a time, literally. The experience became a lesson that was transferable: to get through this hike you’re going to have to take it one step at a time to move towards your goal, which became somewhat of a motto when I was at University and trying to get through my mountain of assignments.
I didn’t do many outdoor activities at University mainly because I didn’t have much spare time and was already trying so many new activities. I got caught up in the final year panic to find myself a job that could become my “career” and lead me to success as defined in corporate terms. I worked in Advertising for two and a half years, but very quickly realised that I hated being stuck at a desk for 12 hours a day. Being inside for so many hours and often having to work on weekends was starting to impact my mental and physical health, and I didn’t want that to define my life at this age. So I took what I felt was a massive risk and prioritised my happiness over the conventional definition of success that I had previously aligned with. I decided to work in Outdoor Education again -it had taught me so much and been a time in my life when I’d been the happiest.
What drew me back to Outdoor Education is the balance between working with kids, being outdoors and having an active lifestyle. I get so much joy and real fulfilment working on programs with kids, enabling them to learn how to push themselves and take care of this planet. We provide amazing experiences in incredible places and we talk to them about waste, pollution and consumerism, so that they have context for understanding what they need to protect and why. I hope that it makes a difference to their future attitudes and consumer behaviour.
Activities like trekking, kayaking, and snorkeling are really just a means to an end: that end being the personal growth and development of the kids. Now that I'm here, I can’t really picture doing anything else at this point in my life and feel so grateful to have found my way back to this. It just took a long time for the message to sink in, that for me, success is working with kids in the outdoors, because that’s what makes me happy, and at the end of the day I truly believe I am helping them shape a better world for themselves.
I am so grateful for my experience at UWCSEA and to the community who helped make it all happen.
In the IB Kate studied Higher Philosophy, English and Art, and Standard Spanish, Biology and Maths Studies, followed by a Combined Honours degree in Anthropology, Sociology and Education at the University of Durham in the UK.