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Celebrating 40 years of "Walk" magic

Dec. 11, 2009

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Eye opening. Transforming. Life changing. While these terms are frequently referenced in college view books, they are offered up by real students every year to describe a very special program offered by Franklin Pierce since 1969 known simply as The Walk.

As The Walk across Europe program celebrates 40 years, a handful of participants in the annual trek—the only program of its kind offered by any U.S. college or university—reflect on what makes it so special. Most agree that it’s all about the journey: walking, thinking and gaining new lessons from within while traveling 1500 miles across Old World landscapes. As Douglas Challenger, sociology professor and member of The Walk faculty, explained in a 2005 article “Europe on 15 Miles a Day” in The New York Times: “Hardly at any point in your life are you going to have this much time to just reflect on your life.”

Each year, from July to November, 25-40 Franklin Pierce students travel with backpacks, camping gear and a 30’x 30’ tent. An advance team of three students drives ahead by van to map out the best route for walking. The revolving “van team” locates food, water, sanitary facilities and a good place to camp for the night. According to Professor Challenger, home for The Walkers each night could be a farmer’s field or a kind person’s front lawn.

“Asking the Question” is often cited by participants in The Walk as one of the more obvious transformational moments. It represents an opportunity to obtain a campsite for your fellow students, many of them weary from the day’s travels, by asking a total stranger permission to camp on their property. Everyone has to do it—at least once. For most Walkers, it is also a crucial moment to gain the trust and acceptance of a local resident, or bear their rejection. “It happens,” Challenger explains, “but most Europeans respond favorably to the request and are charmed by the students and the sincerity of the whole Walk project.”

The van team carries a letter from the college in the local language, explaining who the students are and what they need. Members of the team are expected to engage in a basic conversation with the potential host in their own language, pledging their group’s respect for the property. This forces students into an interaction with the locals in a way that is very personal and very different from any conventional study abroad experience.

Matt Soule, ’06, recalls making his first request while walking through the French countryside in 2004, at the height of a heated war of words between politicians in the U.S. and Europe over the conflict in Iraq. “They were very gracious,” Soule recalls. He offered his thoughts to Lisa Leigh Connors for her 2005 story “No Hostility, Just Hospitality” in The Christian Science Monitor: “We’d ask a farmer if we could sleep on his land, he’d say yes, tell us where to find water, then never come check on us again.” Of the Europeans the group encountered, Soule explained that “they were open, warm and welcoming.” He says the group encountered few if any problems securing lodging for the night. “We weren’t sure what to expect given [the political climate] at the time, but the response was overwhelmingly positive.”

The trek follows a different route through Europe each year. But it begins every summer on campus in Rindge, where participants gather prior to their July departure for a foreign-language class and a travel-philosophy seminar. The Walkers take part in practice-walk sessions and camping exercises. They then travel to the heart of Europe—where they walk for the remainder of the summer and most of the fall semester.

The Walk was started at Franklin Pierce by Taylor Morris, a celebrated author and professor of English. Morris, who retired in 1992, explained to his students one day in 1968 that his regular 15 mile-walk from his home to campus allowed him to experience some great thoughts along the way. A group of faculty colleagues agreed with his assessment of the benefits of learning from walking—and in 1969 the first official Walk was born.

Initially, The Walk took place every two years. Interest quickly grew, and the program became an annual event, with two groups of Franklin Pierce students hiking two different routes each fall. In addition to the two summer courses that precede the trip to Europe, all students work on an independent project within their major during The Walk.
The program, which is a pass/fail course, presents challenges not typically experienced on a college campus. They include the obvious physical demands of walking a total of 1500 miles in 100 days as well as learning to embrace the experience both as an individual and as a member of a team.

“There are countless study abroad programs where the focus is on learning things about the places and people you are visiting,” Doug Challenger points out, “and there are many outdoor education programs where the point is to break out of your comfort zone and build self-confidence through confronting challenging tasks.” While The Walk has aspects of both of these, he maintains, it is really unlike either approach: “Instead the primary focus is on the self’s ‘awakening to the wonder of being,’ as the Romantic poets and writers like Wordsworth, Thoreau and Whitman put it, and on helping [participants] discover a deeper connection to themselves, others and the world.”

The anecdotes of life along the way are enlightening, and seem as numerous as each mile walked over the years. Several participants from a 2004 Walk segment across Ireland recall meeting a local bus driver who let the group camp in his yard, offered food and drink and explained that he had to go back to work. “He left the front door open and encouraged everyone to ‘make themselves at home’ to wash up, shower and stay warm in his house,” recalled Stephen Coyle, who graduated in 2006 with a degree in psychology. He explained upon his return from the program that he had heard positive things about The Walk from upperclassmen when he was a freshman. “Everything they said was true,” he said. “The Walk was a wonderful and enlightening experience, and I have never met so many kind, welcoming and helpful people in my life.”

While the act of walking remains the program’s keystone,Professor Challenger explained a few years ago in the feature “A Long Journey into the Self” in The Chronicle of Higher Education that oral presentations on various topics in European history and culture have become a bigger part of the pre-walk seminar.

After nearly four months of walking and learning, the students return just prior to Thanksgiving break; they focus on family, friends, and on completing their independent projects and writing a long reflective essay on what The Walk has meant to them at home in the remaining weeks of the semester. Some visit campus to touch base with classmates before enjoying the holidays with their families. Walkers from previous years also help them recalibrate to American society and to the pace of campus life.
Matt Soule’s readjustment also included embracing a rewarding new career path. Matt now lives in Boston, where he works as a videographer for a busy production company. “Before going on The Walk, I knew that I wanted to work in media, but didn’t really know which role I wanted to pursue,” he recalls. “I brought a video camera on The Walk with very little idea of what I was going to do with it,” he says. “Once I started taping, it became clear to me how unique everyone’s story was.” He says the interviews provided him with a new perspective on his own future. “While editing the twenty-six hours of walk footage, I realized that I really enjoyed the storytelling aspect of media,” he says. “Since then, I’ve continued refining my story telling skills, and working toward my goals to be a successful producer.”

Steve Coyle now lives in Miami, where he earned a Master’s degree in psychology after graduating from Franklin Pierce. He serves as a school psychologist intern for Miami-Dade County Public Schools while working toward becoming a school psychologist. “This has really worked out for me,” he says, “but I often wonder if I would have been able to take some big chances, like making a jump from New England for South Florida, had I not gained so much confidence from The Walk.”
 
He adds: “I believe The Walk is a great experience because it is so unconventional. I even learned how to cook for a big group of hungry people when my cooking knowledge up to that point in time did not extend past knowing how to microwave a hot pocket. Most of all, I think I learned you have to be open to new experiences, because it gives you the opportunity to get so much back in return.”
Richard Connell, the University’s Walk in Europe Liaison, explains that those returning from Europe often cite better physical and mental energy and a focus that is attributed to what is known as “Walk Magic” by participants. “The transformation is different from person to person, and depends upon what that individual takes away from their experiences,” he observes. “The Walkers transcend being merely individuals, and are actually part of a unique and cohesive unit where each person pulls his or her own weight in order to help the group thrive.”

Connell’s observations are echoed by many former participants, including Courtney Garrity, a 2009 graduate and member of the 2006 Walk. “During The Walk I learned more about myself than I ever thought possible,” she says. “I learned how powerful and strong my body truly is to carry me 15 miles every day,” she notes. “When I came back from The Walk I [not only] felt as though I could do anything imaginable, I actually knew that I truly could do anything, and this is one of the best feelings in the world.”

Students share their Walk experiences in Professor Douglas Challenger’s video on our Web site, www.franklinpierce.edu.

Randy Kennedy, ’85 is president of Academy Communications, a higher education consulting group, and has helped the University secure feature coverage for The Walk in The New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education,National Public Radio, Christian Science Monitor and other major news outlets.

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