Google “outdoor education Philly” and the Philadelphia Outward Bound School pops right up.
That’s what Mac Dvorak learned when searching for an organization that could provide them with training in experiential learning. It was part of Dvorak’s larger plan to create a program to help young women and trans folx develop positive body image and self-esteem.
At Hampshire college in Massachusetts, Dvorak had focused on critical youth studies, which in their words, “draws from education, sociology and psychology to look critically at how youth and adults interact in our world and how those systems could be more equitable, from a youth leadership standpoint.”
As part of their year-long thesis project, Dvorak interned at Community Action Youth Programs where they worked with teens on a participatory action research project on how racism and the stigma of weight affect the self-worth of youth.
With graduation approaching, Dvorak was looking to apply their studies to the world outside academia when they noticed an ad for Clif Bars. Well, not for the bars themselves but for something much better.
“It was for a Clif Bar scholarship called Business with Purpose,” said Dvorak. “It was meant to relieve the burden of student debt for graduating college seniors and allow them to pursue an independent project related to their interests.”
Dvorak came up with an idea on the spot. “I wanted to put together my interest in outdoor education and rock climbing with the work I had been doing on body image and self-esteem.” Their goal was to learn to be an outdoor education instructor and then work with an organization to implement these concepts into an experiential learning program.
Mac Dvorak in Their Own Words:
"Throughout high school, I struggled with a serious eating disorder, depression, anxiety and substance-use. I was in and out of my public school, hospitals and treatment centers. My eating disorder destroyed my physical abilities, my relationships, my ability to focus on anything other than food. I really just lost my grip on my ambition and purpose in life.
During my recovery, I found outdoor recreation as a way to heal my body from the negative medical effects of my eating disorder and build a healthy relationship with exercise. When I began rock climbing, I began appreciating my body as a vehicle for experiencing the world, rather than focusing on what it looks like. I’ve transformed the idea of exercise as something I have to do to be a worthwhile human being to something I love for the sake of the activity and feel grateful to do every day.
I don’t say all of this for sympathy, but to share why I am so passionate about working with young people. During my youth, I had little hope for my future and could not see the other side of recovery. Because of this, I am so driven to support young people in building community, harnessing resiliency and as an adult ally, fighting for systems that value youth rights and treat all our young people as whole human beings."
The application process for the scholarship was a months-long ordeal involving essays, videos, and several rounds of interviews. “The final interview was with the founders of Clif Bar who told me that I had actually won the scholarship!” said Dvorak, still amazed at the reveal. “It’s unreal to think about.”
Dvorak was one of four winners who received between thirty and forty thousand dollars in student debt relief as well as a $3,000 monthly stipend for the next year to pursue their projects. Winners also received forty hours of mentorship from a Clif Bar professional. “They flew us out to their headquarters, and we got to spend time with the CEOs. They were just amazing to work with,” said Dvorak.
Back on the east coast, Dvorak embarked on that fateful Google search and dove into the Philadelphia Outward Bound School website. They reached out to Red Malleck, Associate Director of Staffing and HR at POBS, who was immediately receptive and welcoming both to Dvorak and their project. “We ended up having a two and a half hour zoom session. Red explained the process of becoming an Outward Bound instructor, and we talked about how I could eventually implement the body image elements.”
Dvorak was offered the job and began training as an Outward Bound instructor in early March of 2020. You can guess what happened next. “Covid hit!” said Dvorak. “But in that one week I did some intense training and met such great people, I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
This year Dvorak was able to get back on track and complete their training. “I had rock climbing experience but I had actually never backpacked before. The staff travel was harder than I thought it would be. It required real mental toughness to push through the challenging mileage. It was 35 degrees in the morning! A very immersive experience. But I also didn’t want to come home. As soon as we did, I was like ‘let’s go back out!’”
After training, Dvorak worked over the summer as an assistant instructor. Usually instructors work two seasons as an assistant before becoming a lead instructor, but Dvorak was made lead instructor after just four expeditions as an assistant.
“I was feeling ready to lead,” said Dvorak. “I had been working on my professional development plans between expeditions, and I presented them to Red and expected to have to sell myself, but it wasn’t really like that. They asked how I was feeling and what my experience as an assistant had been like. It’s all about self-reflection, in terms of how to do better next time and what to work on. I really felt like Red had seen my self-reflection development happen.”
Dvorak may have felt ready, but they also acknowledged that going on expedition as leader was a different experience. “It was definitely a little scary,” they said. “And I learned a lot from my first lead experience. It was a rock climbing course and it rained 6 out of the 8 days. The kids were excited about rock climbing but not so much the backpacking. I was able to convey that yes, we are here to have fun and enjoy our surroundings of course, but you are also here to push yourself.”
After leading a few more expeditions over the summer and fall, Dvorak received another award.
"Every year, the Silver Whistle Award goes to an instructor who really shows up for POBS, our staff, and, most importantly, our students. This year, our staff nominated Mac Dvorak for the award,” said Red Malleck. “Mac is amazing! Their heart is full of good intentions and their brain is full of good thoughts and ideas. The best part is that they couple their intentions and ideas with real efforts that make POBS a better, safer, kinder, more inclusive, sillier, and collaborative organization."
Now on winter break, Dvorak still has big plans. “I’m hoping to get back to my original concept of integrating body image education with the outdoors. And right now we don’t have any LGBTQ-specific courses here at POBS. I’m hoping to change that.”