Friday, October 13th, 2023—Today I was on the other side of the news. Today, after twenty-some years of working for NOLS, I engaged very differently in a process that had dashed my dreams, solidified my plans, made me excited, made me sad, made me angry, made me confused, and made so much of my life. It propelled me around the world, it was how I planned, it created narratives and stories of who I was.
Today, working in the NOLS Field Staffing Office on “Contract Sending Day” and writing/emailing “No Letters” for the first time, I confronted my own heartbreak, sadness, and confusion and the disappointing nature of how even the most experienced instructors and most flexible up-and-coming instructors might not receive the work amounts they desire and need for sustainable employment.
For many years I felt the anticipation of the contract sending day. I remember being in the office at Trails Wilderness School in Kelly Wyoming and receiving my first contract offers ever: a fall mountain section and a Sinks Canyon/Lankin Dome climb camp. It was 2001 and while I remember the paper “Dream Sheet” (as it was called then) being ripped out of the Staff Newsletter, submitted by mail, and getting some paper copies of work agreements, I don’t remember much else.
As years passed, I learned there were intricacies to that, but began to understand the quality of work that I did increased the chances of being offered more. The better I performed, the higher the likelihood I would get more work. Slowly I began being offered more work. But that was in the flush days. That was in the days in which students weren’t as scarce. It wasn’t in the days when we have to turn down hundreds of talented, caring, well-performing instructors.
As I clicked “send” on the day’s ubiquitous No Letters sadness and futility rushed through me. I opened email responses and read of frustration, acceptance, and disappointment. I saw how my human error caused confusion and uncertainty and delivered wrong or confusing messages. Responses asking “is that all?” leave me feeling mixed; such a valid question yet the reality being that most deserving humans were offered none.
Knowing that as a department, there is little we can do when student numbers can’t support giving all instructors at least a little bit of the work is both deflective and heartwrenching. Knowing that student numbers in my days of working AFP were 35–40 percent higher* is confounding. Where did they go? Are the people that want to experience the wilderness, create new skills and habits, develop relationships, and do so in new and unique ways really not out there anymore?
Then there were the errors. The instructor’s catch them because they are the ones that know themselves best. Unlike the primary creator of the spring staffing plan, they aren’t sorting through 470 individual work requests. Then in my own work of sending No Letters, there are my mistakes. Knowing that my human error caused confusion and uncertainty is humbling, remorseful, embarrassing, and saddening.
Some are kind oversights: people have work offered but somewhere along the line, the contract wasn’t sent or the letter didn’t get written; those are easier to rectify in cleaning out the office’s email in-box. It seems easy enough to say “oops, here is the contract we didn’t send”; impactful, but happier ending. Others are more impactful oversights: “our records show you didn’t request work” is part of the email sent to people. Somehow work requests are missed then miscategorized, and then those people are omitted from the beginning, with the thought they weren’t requesting work. For all involved I could see how this could leave people feeling like they aren’t (literally and figuratively) seen and understood; I see how that could be de-valuing, frustrating, or so many other things.
Even as spring is now being filled in, I look to the future and in helping to create the plan for the coming boreal summer, I wonder what the learnings and the lessons are. The summer season holds more work opportunities and the challenges are different, but learnings and growth need to be applied none-the-less.
I am new to the job, but I have no magic cure that will make people apply for NOLS courses as they once did. I don’t pretend to know how to make NOLS employment sustainable for all who want it and also provide the NOLS experiences for all who will benefit. So I guess, for the time being, maybe I am the lucky one. And that feels undeserving. My time will come. Budgets will be cut, life choices will take precedence, and I will be on the other end of No Letters once again, though it seems I will have more understanding of those who send.
*rough estimate based upon quick database research; a quick count yielded about 3,652 enrolled expedition students in FY23 and 5,845 in FY14