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Adventure Literature course "Exploring the American Wilderness," gets students out of the classroom, onto the waves

Nov 4, 2022
by Camara Johnson

Through off-campus adventures, Professor Sam McMillan hopes his students can use experiences in “the wilderness,” to gain new perspectives about the topics covered in his class.

Students standing in front of surf boards

You can't really read about a place or something like the wilderness without actually having a chance to go out and experience it yourself,” McMillan said. 

This semester, McMillan has led several outdoor adventure field trips through his Honors 100 course: “Exploring the American Wilderness.” The course is part of the Flagler English Department's Adventure Literature Series, a set of courses that merges classroom instruction with high-impact firsthand encounters. 

The Adventure Literature series is aimed at shifting students’ views of the global environment through experiential learning, and guiding them through understanding how these experiences compare to those of the authors and characters in the course’s required literature. 

As a part of this course, McMillan led a surf trip to Vilano Beach on Sept. 18 as a way for his students to explore “the ways that surfing can alter our perception of the ocean environment.” McMillan’s course is rooted in this semester’s Honor’s Program theme of Global Consciousness. 

“The way I’m reading [global] is as environment,” he said. “So, we’re going to think about the ways surfing can allow us to perceive the environment or the globe in a different fashion.”  

McMillan said that the course material consists of authors who write about “what wilderness is and the sort of values we attach to it.” Ahead of their surf trip, he said the class read “Maui Surfer Girls,” by Susan Orland, the book which inspired the blockbuster surfing film “Blue Crush.”  

Another piece by journalist William Finnegan, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” allowed the students to tap into a bigger picture of surfing. 

“He's a little bit more philosophical with his surfing, like surfing's not just a sport, but it's actually a way of thinking of ways of seeing,” McMillan said. “And so we kind of tried to look at these two perspectives and see how our own perspectives might tie in.” 

While this is an English course, it’s the intersection of academic fields that some students find appealing.  

“I love this class,” freshman Eloise O’Bryan said. “It's a perfect combination of wilderness and English. Because part of me has this little dream to go into science, but I'm terrible at math. So this is awesome because I love the wilderness description and the ecology side of it.” 

O’Bryan, who was born and raised in Chicago, had never been surfing prior to the trip. She said the experience shifted her view of the ocean. 

“I just have respect that their sport literally has to do with how the wilderness will be that day,” O’Bryan said.  

These out-of-the-classroom learning experiences are what make the content they read in class click for O’Bryan. 

“I love a good story,” she said. “I love a good dissociation through a story, but when it comes to stuff like that, you've just got to throw me out there and give me time to figure it out.” 

And a bonus of the trip, O’Bryan caught her first wave. 

“I was able to catch a wave,” she said. “...That's a flex for me right there. It makes the sport seem a lot less intimidating.” 

But she said it was thanks to the help of Happy Waves Surf School instructor, Oli McLeod. 

“We get even more enjoyment out of watching people really click with surfing,” McLeod said. “And ultimately that's what it's all about, is being able to share our love of the ocean and waves and surfing.” 

Student surfing

McLeod has traveled the world surfing, eventually settling in St. Augustine where he decided to start his own surf school: Happy Waves.  

Happy Waves Surf School works in partnership with the Chris Moyer (CMYR) Memorial Surf Fund to give opportunities to young people who have never had a chance to experience surfing. Moyer was a Flagler College graduate who passed away earlier this year. His fund is devoted to fulfilling dreams where opportunity does not exist.  

“The CMYR Memorial Surf Fund is an extension of Chris’ love and passion for the water and the surfing way of life,” according to the website. “Knowing that ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling,’ it was always in Chris’ heart that others, without an opportunity, would somehow be given the chance to learn how to surf and to experience their own first paddle out much like he did back in 1999.” 

The fund was able to cover the cost of the surfboard rentals that Flagler students used during this trip. 

“I’d approached the guys who put [the fund] together and mentioned this Flagler group and they saw it fitting because Chris Moyer was a Flagler student,” McLeod said. 

For surfers like McLeod, the sport recontextualizes their perspective of the ocean, in the same way that McMillan hopes this experience would for his students.  

“It creates a connection there,” McLeod said. “It's certainly not one of fear. A lot of people watch Shark Week and then they just have this notion of fear surrounding the ocean and being able to play in the ocean and have fun. Riding waves all over the world, you get a lot more of a loving relationship with the ocean as opposed to one of caution and fear.” 

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