Why Does Apogee Work? Evaluating the Magic

By: Izzy Janzen

Back in the day, one of my favorite things about being an Apogee leader was seeing the transition groups experienced over the course of a trip. My favorite example is the first day of one of my Northwest Explorer trips. We encountered flight delays and a temporarily misplaced bag that led to a lengthy stretch of pretty awkward circle time on the Seattle-Tacoma airport floor. We played games and ate snacks and learned about each other and tried to make the situation as fun as possible – but it was abundantly clear that everyone was distracted by their nerves, excitement, and all of the coming unknowns. Fast forward to departure day, and the very same group was now a giant blob of hugging, laughing, and crying (myself included). One of our other students has described her group as “a dozen new siblings” who she can “endlessly trust and love.” The journey of an Apogee “family” is a beautiful thing. We hope for our students to experience this transition, to feel comfortable in their own skin, to learn, to grow, to make friends, and to have fun.

A classic Day 1 airport game scene
A classic Day 1 airport game scene

Well, let’s take a step back – what led to this hugging, laughing, crying blob? Needless to say, each Apogee blob is complex and unique, as every leader pair brings their own energy and style, every group is comprised of different students, and every itinerary provides it’s own unique challenges. When asked what they loved most about their Apogee trip, one student said: “All the people I met and how such a diverse group of people could come together and manage to become so close as well as work together for 20 days!” This sense of community, these bonds, are what drew me to lead for Apogee in the first place and what pulled me back for multiple summers. Over the course of my four years with Apogee, and more particularly in my role as a full-time Assistant Director, I’ve noticed a few common traits to successful Apogee trips. These traits help to explain the strength of these bonds and how this cohesion happens:

#1 Minimizing External Life Pressures: The unfortunate truth is that, outside of a space like Apogee, adolescents today have an enormous list of external pressures: social, academic, athletic, material – the list goes on.

#2 Goals for their Trip: Students seek out an Apogee experience for a variety of reasons. They may want to have fun, make new friends, try something new, step outside of their comfort zone, challenge themselves, go on an adventure, etc.

#1 + #2 = The Magic: The unique setting that Apogee provides offers the opportunity for students to achieve their goals (#2) in an environment free from many of the pressures in their lives (#1) (so maybe the equation is more like, “#2 – #1 = The Magic…”). It can be truly empowering for a student to come to their Apogee program with a clean slate – able to be themselves without being defined by their extracurriculars, their grades, who they are socially in their normal lives, and so on. This setting is established, in large part, by the tone set by our trip leaders – they facilitate the group dynamic, guide conversations positively, and create an open, comfortable space for students to have fun and explore together. As a result, we see friendships bloom among students that might not otherwise connect in a traditional environment.

Our office spends many months of the off season dedicated to recruiting leaders (check out our blog post on leader recruitment!). We seek out leaders who will facilitate the magic – leaders who will be responsible, dynamic, caring, creative, and great role models who dedicate themselves to the good of their groups. We also ask students to bring their best attitude and an open mind to their Apogee experience. Trips like Apogee’s are effective because of the personal empowerment associated with the challenges in the itineraries and because of the sense of belonging, authenticity, value, and connectedness that students gain. However, it’s when all of this comes together that the “magic” happens.

Well, that’s my personal evaluation on the magic – but, there are real live experts who speak to this phenomenon as well. Experts say that programs (like college pre-orientation or adventure-based recreation trips) are effective when participants:

  1. Feel like they belong;
  2. Are able to express their authentic selves;
  3. Feel accepted and valued by their peers and their leaders;
  4. Perceive personal empowerment;
  5. Perceive their group as being cohesive;
  6. Feel as if the leaders are connecting with the group.¹


Sometimes friendship comes with awesome accessories!
Sometimes friendship comes with awesome accessories!

This list echoes the goals we have for our program and our students, and it helps us capture what makes trips rewarding and meaningful.

When working as a leader in the field, I was fortunate enough to experience the magic firsthand. I still stay in touch with my co-leader and with many of my students, and my Apogee summers have undoubtedly made me a better person. Now that I work in the office, I see the transition of Apogee groups in a very different way. I have come to realize that what I once thought of as “magic” is actually the result of an intentionally and thoughtfully-run organization. It’s not *poof!* and magic appears out of nowhere – it grows from a thoughtful structure, great leaders, and wonderful environment that encourages students to be themselves and approach life in a new way for a few weeks a year. This doesn’t make the laughing, hugging, crying blobs any less magical, but they do make more sense now, and it’s exciting to contribute to the bubbling cauldron that is an Apogee summer.

Hiking Mount Washington with Apogee Adventures, Saturday, July 11, 2015. (Photo by Gabe Souza)
Hiking Mount Washington with Apogee Adventures, Saturday, July 11, 2015. (Photo by Gabe Souza)


¹ This list is compiled from the following articles: http://health.utah.edu/health-kinesiology-recreation/recreation/docs/nols/Schumann.pdf; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260392137_The_State_of_Knowledge_of_Outdoor_Orientation_Programs_Current_Practices_Research_and_Theory ;https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability\
Interspersed quotes from students: Parker Hawk and Corey Shmolka – thanks guys!