Passing the Paddle: Cohort 13 Graduation

Time has a variable quality when you live in the mountains. Spring can descend on you with no warning, like it happened overnight, but a day can stretch on eternally when staring at the umpteenth draft of a project. When I worked as a wilderness therapy guide, the students had a saying: “The days go by like weeks but the weeks go by like days.” So it is here, too, sometimes.
Somehow, without us noticing, the students of Cohort 14 have completed nearly nine of our thirteen month residency. An even bigger milestone hit; one that served as a reminder of our trajectory and where we’ll be in exactly one year: graduation.
In the two days leading up to graduation on March 19th, the members of Cohort 13 presented their capstone projects to an audience of friends, family, North Cascades Institute staff, and Cohort 14 students. These capstone projects focus on “a topic that has intrigued [the students] throughout their graduate school experience, connecting their experiences within environmental education, natural history, sense of place and the future of education” (quoted from
As a relatively new graduate students, and never having seen a capstone presentation before, I had no idea what to expect. Frankly, I still don’t. Cohort 13’s projects spanned an incredible range of presentation styles and topics. Due to a change in the schedule of the graduate program, and the flurry of activity that C13 was in the midst of when we arrived at the Environmental Learning Center last July, the two cohorts have had very little interaction. But these capstone presentations gave me excellent insight into each student’s passions and values.
Kaci Darsow’s Doing.Myself.Justice. felt like a true performance piece. One that intimately explored Kaci’s identity, sense of justice, and shifting perspective during their time in graduate school.
Katherine Renz’s No More Icebreakers: Environmental Education for the Rest of Us took us inside the walls of Phyte Club: a visionary bar with the goal of educating customers about the natural world through botanically infused libations and weekly events.

Phyte Club
Did I mention that Phyte Club also plays heavy metal?

Annabel Connelly’s Finding Wonder in the Everyday through Storytelling explored the power of stories, her own or others’, and the ability they have to inform and inspire.
Samantha Hale’s What Came First, the Love or the Learning? asked what it means to feel a sense of place. She explored the components of a sense of place, the repercussions of displacement (forced or voluntary), and why this places an important role in environmental education.
Sarah Stephens’s A Francophile in the North Cascades had us shaping our own sourdough bread while learning about second language acquisition.

Saul SourdoughExecutive Director Saul Weisberg gets into the spirit of bread-making

Katie Komorowski’s Flint and Steel: What Sparks Your Imagination? asked us to think about what makes nature so inspiring, and what aspects of life and the natural world feed our passion.
Elissa Kobrin’s The Red Pill: Environmental Education Wakes Up to the Real World examined consumer culture in the United States and the responsibility of environmental educators to tell their students the Story of Stuff.
Tyler Chisholm’s Mudpies & Dragonflies: The Value of Unstructured Play in Environmental Education took us into a Forest Kindergarten where children spend all day, every day, outside. (Haven’t heard a Forest Kindergarten? Neither had I! Here’s a great video about one in Switzerland.)

Value of PlayPart of Tyler’s instructions during her presentation? “Go play!”

The capstone projects culminated with an intimate graduation ceremony. Executive Director Saul Weisberg, Dr. Gene Myers, Graduate Program Director Joshua Porter, and Program Coordinator Chris Kiser offered their comments, hopes, well wishes, super powers, and spirit animals for each of the members of Cohort 13.

Nick's Comments
Dr. Nick Stanger offers his comments
Graduation Line
The long line of well-wishers
Kaci Katie HugKaci and Program Manager Katie Roloson share a moment

Following the ceremony, Cohorts 13 and 14 loaded into the two big canoes and paddled out into the water for the ceremonial Passing of the Paddle: a changing of the guard, and a marking of the few short months in which Cohort 14 will be the only cohort on campus.

C13 Canoe
C13 in the Salish Dancer
C14 Canoe
C14 takes off in the Voyager
Passing the Paddle
The Passing of the Paddle
Opening Paddle
C14 opening the wrapped paddle back on the dock, which came with its own surprise

And so, with these projects and ceremonies behind them, with the encouragement of staff and faculty from Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute backing them, and with the love and support of their families, another cohort graduates and goes off to change the world.
Good luck, C13!
*All photos taken by Lindsey MacDonald
*Lead photo: Cohort 13 ready to graduate! From L to R: Katie Komorowski, Kaci Darsow, Sarah Stephens, Annabel Connelly, Samantha Hale, Tyler Chisholm, Katherine Renz, Elissa Kobrin.

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