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The Courage of Becoming: WSU 4-H Rite of Passage

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Once or twice a year, in the late spring or early summer, a handful of carefully prepared and eager young people go into the deserts and mountains of central Washington for a very specific purpose: to find the courage to become adults.  The WSU 4-H Rite of Passage (ROP) Program began as a partnership between 4-H Youth Development and the School of Lost Borders. Rite of Passage  has been offering coming of age ceremonies to youth and ongoing professional development for adult wilderness guides and guides-in-training for over ten years. A recent inquiry into the effects and efficacy of the program brought almost immediate responses from several former participants. In addition to a unanimous respect for the program’s ability to bring about personal growth and transition, conversations with the respondents also revolved around how to continue to support and strengthen this unique opportunity for others.

The Need

In our globalized society, youth face challenges to successful development and maturation from a seemingly unlimited number of sources: peer pressure, families in crisis, the increased availability of prescription and illegal drugs (Johnston et al. 2010), several forms of media saturation (Carr 2010; Young  2009), “Nature Deficit Disorder” (Louv 2005) and an array of sedentary leisure time activities (Tremblay, et al. 2011).

The last decade of child-rearing trends in America reveals increased, and sometimes anxiety-driven, emphasis on academic and social achievement, earlier emphasis on career planning (frequently in middle school) and high stakes tests driving competitive placements (Dunnewold 2008). Despite this push for increased competency in young people, researchers and child development professionals have begun to report growing trends of delayed adolescence and maturation (Arrnet,2000), growing social disenfranchisement and alarming trends of increasing depression and mental illness in teens and young adults (Becker 2015, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, 2015).  Data trends following youth suicide indicate that young people appear to be struggling more than preceding generations to find meaning and purpose within their communities, and the number of youth attempting and succeeding in suicides is on the rise (Healthy Youth Survey, 2014; Washington State Department of Health, 2015).

A period of identity exploration is developmentally appropriate and encouraged for pre-teen youth. Late adolescence traditionally signals a time to make decisions, choose a career path and integrate communal roles for adulthood. These decisions signal what is broadly defined as “identity achievement” (Marcia 1966). While there appears to be great emphasis to ensure the collegiate trajectories of young people, giving them the skills and confidence to define lives of quality and meaning has been lacking. (Brendtro et al. 1990). Neither of these developmental opportunities (identity exploration or identity achievement) can be attained by youth without some awakening and grounding of their personal  autonomy and identification with their own values. 



The Rite of Passage  

Both theory and research suggest that significant rites of passage for youth can provide a respite from engaging in antisocial encoding and negative identity construction (Dawson & Russell,2012; Moore & Russell 2002; Ewert et al. 2011).   Rites of passage can offer alternatives to the increasingly negative outcomes of differentiating through narcissism, substance abuse, thrill seeking and the destructive disassociation from human empathy. Contact with the natural world, and a period of isolation, offers teens a chance to hear themselves and others more clearly (Knapp & Smith 2005) which can result in greater commitments to their communities.

Wilderness Experience Programs (WEPs) have been a popular approach for helping youth through challenging transitions.  WEPs can be classified into three types: therapeutic, personal-growth and educational. The 4-H Rite of Passage Program is defined as a non-therapeutic personal-growth wilderness experience program (Dawson & Russell 2012). WEPs have been reported to enhance self-esteem and personal empowerment measurements. (Harper and Russell 2008; Hartig et al. 1991; Moore and Russell 2002; Ewert et al. 2011). Due to their accountability standards, Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) therapeutic WEPs have typically gathered greater data of outcomes than their personal growth program counterparts. Some of the same measurement tools might be viable for use with the personal growth focused WEP.

While the methods and outcomes of 4-H Rite of Passage may bear some similarity to therapeutic WEP’s, its aims are developmental empowerment, not behavioral change.  Rites of passage are founded on the extremely old practice of marking life transitions with memorable, self-generated and culturally-generated ceremonies. Building off of many global traditions, and the seminal works of Steven Foster and Meredith Little (Foster & Little 1997), the 4-H Rite of Passage Program was implemented to offer teens a very structured process for initiating, recognizing and implementing communally recognized, intentional transitions into adulthood. At the heart of these rites is a personal challenge that requires participants to engage in an extended period (72 hours) of self-reflection in the natural world. Of equal importance is the time the field guides spend empowering participants to form or rescript positive and coherent personal narratives that give them hope for the future.  (Kӧber, Schmiedek, Habermas, 2015). Focusing teens towards embracing their maturity, rather than making it part of a “court ordered” program of correction, keeps the full onus of the outcome in the hands of the participants. Youth are not pushed into this circle, they come into it when they are ready.  The growing field of interpersonal neurobiology reaffirms the beneficial outcomes inherent when young people are given the opportunity to integrate cognitive awareness and construction of meaningful personal narrative. (Siegel 2012; Kӧber, Schmiedek, Habermas, 2015).

Since its inception in 2003, the WSU 4-H Rite of Passage Program has mentored and guided over 140 youth through their transitions to adulthood.  In addition, each year the program has introduced adults to the 4-H Rite of Passage by offering guide trainings. Many of these individuals have become fully trained guides and powerful program advocates. As of 2016 there were approximately 75 adults in a queue eager to become 4-H ROP guides. Several of these have branched off from WSU and used their training to assist other local WEPs and youth programs.

Preparing Facilitators

The program has been in a continuous state of refinement since it began, with adult and youth handbooks, (Foster et al. 1991, 2008) and a tiered process for ROP guide professional development (WSU 2016). Beyond understanding the steps of ceremonial preparation and the experiential pedagogy of “the four shields” (Foster & Little 1999)  there is a very clear list of requirements for becoming a Rite of Passage guide, including first aid training,  technical wilderness survival training and numerous field hours shadowing lead guides. The ROP guide has a very special mentoring relationship with transitioning youth, and a ”mirroring” discourse that is structured similarly to appreciative inquiry  (Cooperrider & Whitney 2005) and active/deep listening (Gordon 2003; Stine 1999). In short, the mirroring process builds on what is already there, rather than looking for things to “fix.” The process leads to empowerment of the participant and a recognition and honoring of their individual gifts.  The training expectations for Rite of Passage guides far exceed those of a traditional 4-H club leader, approximately 200 hours or three week long field experiences.  Many people who enter the training queue to become guides approach the task with humility rather than ambition. The commitment to the program is demonstrated by a strong communal vision.


Preparing Youth

The preparation of youth is taken very seriously. The intention of the program is to support young people in claiming their adulthood, which means their communities must be ready to recognize them as adults upon their return. The process of “letting go” of the vestiges of the life one is leaving is known as “severance.” Young people are encouraged to begin the process long before the actual Rite of Passage ‘threshold” experience in the wilderness, and without a doubt, the more serious a young person is about marking the transition, the more successful the experience will be. Youth are trained in wilderness survival and potential effects of the ceremonial experience (isolation, hunger, fear, the possibility of real change). The threshold experience is more than just “going out into the wilderness alone.” Teens are prepared with at least two days of intensive group interviews, and reaffirmed by at least two days of intensive group debriefing upon their return.  The program’s effects are expected to manifest (“incorporation”) for at least a year following the threshold experience. Outcomes of a ROP experience can easily be bolstered through effective community mentoring.  Individuals who are concurrently training to become guides can serve in their local communities as mentors, indispensable participants in the severance and incorporation phases of the ROP.  

Future Directions for the Rite of Passage Program:

Rite of Passage guides and “guides-in-training” have had numerous conversations about building capacity in the program, seeking bridges to more traditional audiences and supporting emerging adults following their ceremonies.

A challenge for the 4-H Youth Development program has been that the ROP experience is usually offered to teens that are on the cusp of exiting the youth development program. Several people who have trained in the ROP program have attempted to bridge that challenge by creating “pre-teen” ROP activities in other educational venues, focusing on experiences more appropriate to the developing needs of the emerging adolescent.  Former ROP Program participants are also often called upon to mentor their peers in preparing for their ceremonies.

Discussion has also evolved around the need to engage the communities from which the youth come. The ROP program does advocate 6 months to a year of preparation before stepping into the actual wilderness experience, and another year following the experience to make sure the knowledge of the threshold experience takes hold.  WSU ROP Program faculty and staff have recently implemented a community mentoring handbook for guides-in-training that assists in multiple ways: it informs the general public of the program’s purpose, provides the guides-in-training with opportunities to develop their Rite of Passage skills, and prepares youth through more intentional severance activities. Community mentors do not require the full training required of guides. The process of mentoring others through the ROP Program will be instrumental in scaffolding the transitional experience for both youth and mentors. Exposure to the language and pedagogy of the Rite of Passage before the ceremony will help youth and guides communicate more deeply in the council circle.  At the request of several ROP guides-in-training, the newly written community mentoring handbook also provides communities and families with guidance for pre-teen coming of age ceremonies. The new publication includes program evaluation tools, built from some of the same tools vetted by the 4-H Common Measures evaluations constructed by National 4-H Council.  These evaluations are designed to measure healthy living, growth mind-set, self-esteem and career college readiness that would be appropriate for Rite of Passage evaluation (National 4H Council, 2015).   

What Becomes  

Past program evaluations of youth and adult participants in the WSU 4-H Rite of Passage program revealed that the impacts to the individuals have been held very close to the heart, and  powerful intentions have resulted in a great deal of community action. The youth in the program were evaluated using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and the Children’s Hope Scale (Wallace, 2016). Participants reported persisting effects that included improvement in mood, attitude and altruistic social effects.  Many adult participants have used the experience to springboard into deeper ceremonial work, and sought out and aligned with numerous organizations worldwide that embrace the vision of transitional ceremonies for building stronger communities. For WSU 4-H the vision is creating caring, capable and contributing citizens, and the 4-H Rite of Passage has aided in reaching that vision.  


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About the Author: Michael Wallace, Larry Hobbs, & Scott Vanderwey

Michael Wallace has been working with Washington State University since 2001, after he received his Master’s Degree from Western Washington University. He was promoted to Associate faculty in 2014 and assigned as a Regional Specialist in 2016. Michael has participated in numerous 4-H Rite of Passage events and dedicated a significant portion of his time to advocating for and supporting the program within WSU. He has also recently co-authored the Community Mentoring Handbook with other members of the Rite of Passage family.

From a field biologist studying whales and dolphins, to a psychotherapist working with individual and family systems, to a teacher and naturalist leading wildlife trips worldwide, to years of Rites of Passage training at the School of Lost Borders, Larry came to the 4H Challenge Program with a vision of making traditional Rites of Passage available to all 4H youth. Although still conducting river dolphin research in Southeast Asia, teaching and leading natural history trips around the world, Larry’s passion rests in guiding Rites of Passage and in sharing his knowledge of the ways we interrelate with and understand the natural world that supports us all. Larry is a father and grandfather.

Scott VanderWey is the 4-H State Director of Adventure Education for Washington State University Extension. Scott oversees adventure-based 4-H programs throughout the state, and acts as liaison between local program coordinators, county faculty, staff, volunteers, community partners and the State Director of 4-H Youth Development. He is a strong visionary and a tireless advocate for outdoor and experiential education in all learning experiences. Scott is passionate about his work, and getting as many people as he can outdoors.

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