Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Adirondack Semester: A life changing, different kind of ‘study abroad’

By Zach Lawrence

I came to the Adirondacks when I was 12. It was much different for me back then, back before I had put down roots. I didn’t even really want anything to do with this place when I was that young. I had it in my mind that the park was cursed. It seemed to me that those who spent too much time inside the blue line were never truly able to leave. My grandparents were from the AuSable Valley. They had all left for long periods of their lives, traveling around the states at the military’s command. But they all ended up right back where they started. My cousins followed the same path, as did both of my parents. 

I grew up gallivanting around the Rocky Mountain states due to my father’s career in the Air Force. Montana to Wyoming to Colorado. All I had known growing up was wind and dust. Wind that would find its way under my skin and crack my hands. My knuckles split and bled and stung under the unceasing wind of the plains. Dust had a permanent place in my teeth and in my eyes. In the winter, the snow was no better. Dry as can be, I don’t think I ever was able to make a snowman. Champagne powder they called it farther west in the mountains, but where we were on the plains, it was nothing more than white dust. 

So after only living the dry life at 7,500 ft, the Adirondacks were the exact opposite of what I was accustomed to. I remember my first thought when I stepped out of the car at my grandpa’s place in Upper Jay. It felt like the air was sitting on me. It was August of 2012- the sun was high, and the humidity was higher. I was experiencing for the first time a weather phenomenon known by the locals as “muggy,” and I hated it. 

Like the weather, it took me a long, long time to become accustomed to all the aspects of my new home. Somehow, I was prone to car sickness even with the arrow-straight roads of Colorado’s plains, so the winding roads of the North Country were torturous. I had never even heard of ticks before the day I lifted my shirt to find one firmly engorged in my abdomen. And, my God, what was with everyone calling each other “bud” all the time?

My family felt complete when we moved to the Adirondacks as we were one of the last sects still not permanently located there. Despite this, even throughout all of high school, I never quite felt at home; that is, until I found the Adirondack Semester. 

During the very first meeting with my advisor at St. Lawrence University, he told me about this peculiar off-campus semester where students live in the woods about an hour from campus for the fall. Given its close proximity to campus, it isn’t a common choice for a study abroad experience, but it is arguably the most unique program the university has to offer. In many ways, it is farther from campus than even their overseas programs. Students live without cell phones and computers and write every assignment by hand. They live in yurts, paddle canoes to many of their classes, and communicate with the outside world almost solely through letters. There is no running water, no mirrors, and no internet. 

The program is centered around two big ideas that go hand-in-hand: place-based learning and forming a community. The curriculum is made up of Adirondack focused classes which students all take together. They cook and eat all their meals together, complete weekly chores around the village to keep things running smoothly, and take several field trips a week all throughout the park. Students get a glimpse of almost every aspect of the park and its communities while they take on trail work; study the history, culture, and land use at various museums; examine the various ecosystems; and complete several outdoor expeditions. At the end of it all, they get a glimpse of working and living in the area through a variety of internships coupled with homestays. In the midst of forming a community amongst fellow students, they join the people of the Adirondacks in their own way. 

 I was lucky enough to be one of eight students of the semester in the fall of 2019. By the time winter came around, I felt like a part of a new family amongst my fellow students and like a true member of the greater Adirondack community. And like all the towns and villages of the park come together to form one identity of Adirondackers, all the alumni of this semester come together to form one Adirondack Semester family. Indeed, the park isn’t cursed after all, but it does seem to have a spell on it of some kind. 

The true sense of Adirondack Semester community didn’t become apparent for me until just a few weeks ago – almost two years after I first entered the world of the Adirondack Semester. Every year during the first week of August, it is time to get the yurt village ready for the incoming students. Known as “workweek”, any Adirondack Semester alumni and all those involved in the program who have the time can come help get the village prepared. I was fortunate and excited to have some time off from work during workweek this year. Though work was hard, to spend a few days catching up with familiar faces, meeting fantastic new people, and preparing one of the most special places in the world to me for the next generation of students was like chicken soup for the soul. 

When I stepped out of my car, it was just as serene as I remembered. The parking lot was quiet save the familiar songs of the birds high in the hemlocks. Starting down the quarter mile trail to the village, Tenderfoot Cove came into view just like it used to. The water was a perfect reflection of the sky. It always astounded me how flat Massawepie waters could be. With every step the sound of an axe splitting firewood and soft, scattered conversations became clearer. I came a few days after the week had officially started, and I was the newest alum of the program at workweek that day. Upon arrival though, I was greeted not just as an old friend, but as a member of the family. It occurred to me then that though I had visited the village a few times since completing the semester, this was the first time since 2019 that I had been there with a full community. It truly felt like coming home. 

Zach Lawrence is a student at St Lawrence University, majoring in environmental studies and minoring in outdoor studies and creative writing. He sees the Adirondacks as his permanent home, and loves exploring with his dog, Reese.

Photo: A scene from the vibrant living and learning community at Arcadia, the site of St. Lawrence University’s “Adirondack Semester” program. Photo courtesy of St. Lawrence University.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

2 Responses

  1. Colie says:

    I’m an alum of the Semester as well; thank you for reminding me of these feelings! But I don’t get any email/notification about the workweek and had no idea about it. Is there some kind of mailing list?

  2. Naturegirl7 says:

    This is beautifully written and i love the message how building community created a deep relationship to the land/environment. Starting out with a very personal experience that then expands to greater awareness of the interconnected web of humans, nature, the earth. I found this article inspiring! Thank you!

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