Life Beyond the Syllabus

The oxygen crucial for revitalizing breaths became increasingly scarce as the water in their camelbacks froze, leaving them thirsting for relief. Silhouetted against the backdrop of a slowly illuminating orange horizon, a group of Southwestern students harmonized with their guides’ mantra: “pole, pole,” Swahili for slowly, slowly. It marked the seventh day of their ascent along the Lemosho route on Mount Kilimanjaro, and the group had been tirelessly climbing since midnight. In a mere 45 minutes, however, they would stand triumphantly at the top of the world. Four months prior to summiting the mountain, Southwestern’s Outdoor Adventure Program, led by Branndon Bargo, the executive producer and Host of The Highpointers on PBS and Amazon Prime and member of the Prestigious Explorers Club, unveiled the adventure of a lifetime. It was an invitation for students to journey to Tanzania, Africa, climb the country’s highest peak, and immerse themselves in the rich local culture. This groundbreaking expedition, the first of its kind, promised to deliver exhilarating, beyond-the-classroom learning experiences. “Before joining Southwestern, I guided three groups to the top of Kilimanjaro and spent considerable time in Africa, giving me the confidence to lead these students,” Bargo said. “My transformative experiences in Africa inspired me to offer students a similarly immersive and life-changing adventure. My goal on this trip was to teach students to lean into life’s storms, physically, mentally, and emotionally, fostering depth, character, and hope among the team, with the hope that they will impart these values to others on campus.”

Brushstrokes Across Kilimanjaro

As the eight-day trek began, the lush rainforest ecosystem greeted the group with a gentle drizzle, transforming the landscape into a tapestry of vibrant green hues. Thira Schlegel ’24, a studio art major, seized every moment to capture the essence of Kilimanjaro through her artistic lens. Equipped with a makeshift easel crafted from a camera tripod and a piece of wood, along with watercolors and a compact Altoid tin containing small paper canvases, she carried her artistic tools in her backpack. Her creative journey began on the second day of the hike when they reached the campsite. Drawn by the soothing sound of a nearby stream, she found a picturesque hillside. Compelled to capture the landscape’s natural beauty on paper, she wasted no time and began painting. “Usually, when I paint, I listen to music, but on this trip, I wanted to immerse myself in the sights and sounds,” Schlegel recalled. “I could hear our porters conversing in Swahili and my friends chatting; all of that, coupled with the breathtaking scenery, profoundly influenced the painting.”

As the group progressed through diverse ecosystems, from rainforests to arid deserts, Schlegel continued to channel her experiences onto canvases. She even collaborated with a local porter named Good Luck, who revealed his own artistic talents. Together, they created unique paintings, reflecting their distinct styles and narratives. One memorable day, as rain pattered against the tent, Schlegel and Good Luck embarked on a special project—creating portraits of each other. Sheltered from the elements, they engaged in a silent conversation through their art. This connection transcended the ordinary; an unspoken understanding unfolded between them. Amid discussions about their lives, despite their apparent differences, they discovered a shared appreciation for family. This moment of creativity became a profound connection of mutual understanding and respect.

The journey was about more than just reaching the summit for Schlegel. It was an exploration of her artistic process amidst varying altitudes and ecosystems. The unpredictability of mountain weather added an extra layer of complexity to her creative endeavors. Yet, she persisted. Inspired by the unique landscapes and resilience of the people she encountered, her art became a visual testament to her transformative trek up Kilimanjaro. Her paintings not only showcased the breathtaking beauty of Tanzania but also served as a powerful medium for cross-cultural communication and understanding.

At Kilimanjaro's Karanga Camp At Kilimanjaro's Karanga Camp (photo by Cynthia Cisneros)Unity and the Power of Collective Achievement

The journey to the summit was arduous, both physically and mentally. Jihan Schepmann ’24 drew strength from the anticipation of what was to come and found herself pushing through moments of fatigue and breathlessness. Assuming a leadership role during the climb, Schepmann embraced the opportunity to motivate and support her teammates. She recognized the mental challenge of walking for hours in the dark and the importance of fostering a sense of camaraderie among the group. Initially strangers to one another, the diverse group of climbers quickly formed strong bonds. Laughter, check-ins, and intentional efforts to hike alongside different individuals created a sense of community.

When summit day arrived with a midnight start, the group slowly ascended, battling freezing temperatures and rugged terrain. Guided by the stars in the night sky and her headlamp, the support and encouragement from her teammates and porters fueled Schepmann’s determination to summit. Reaching Stella Point marked a significant achievement; they were less than an hour from Uhuru Peak. However, the celebratory atmosphere was tinged with concern for a missing team member—Claire Haughey ’24. Struggling with altitude sickness, Haughey had chosen to stay behind, persevering in her ascent with the company of porters who had remained with her.

The final push to the summit was met with overwhelming excitement. In her final steps, Schepmann reflected on the mental milestones she set for herself during the climb. She savored the sunrise and the breathtaking views above the clouds. Standing triumphantly atop the 19,341-foot mountain, the realization of their collective accomplishment washed over her. The descent from the summit back to Stella Point revealed a heartwarming sight—Haughey. Seeing Haughey led Schepmann to experience a mix of surprise and concern. Aware of the potential solitude Haughey might endure during her final ascent, Schepmann impulsively decided to make a selfless offer. She asked if she could summit again, ensuring that Haughey could share the joyous moment of summiting with a companion from the group. “I didn’t want Claire to be alone when she got to the top,” Schepmann expressed. “Watching her fight to reach the summit, push through, and witnessing her mental strength was nothing short of incredible.”

Schepmann’s choice to accompany Haughey on the final stretch was more than a physical act; it carried profound symbolism. It highlighted the climbing group’s collective spirit, emphasizing that each member’s success was intertwined with the group’s success. Climbing Kilimanjaro with its dual challenges of physical and mental endurance, this gesture symbolized unity, friendship, and the celebration of each individual’s accomplishment as a shared victory.

An Odyssey of Self-Discovery and Cultural Appreciation

For James Vaquero ’25, the expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro extended beyond the physical challenges of the climb. From the moment he set foot in Tanzania, the cultural tapestry unfolded around him. The vibrant colors, unique traditions, and warm hospitality of the people immersed him in an environment distinct from his usual surroundings. The Tanzanian landscapes and the encounters with its people contributed to a transformative journey of self-discovery and appreciation for the world’s diversity.

At Kilimanjaro's peak At Kilimanjaro's peak (photo by Cynthia Cisneros)The local guides exemplified servant leadership and became unexpected mentors for Vaquero. Witnessing their tireless dedication and selflessness ignited a spark within him. Their willingness to go above and beyond, running from campsite to campsite carrying heavy loads on Kilimanjaro, resonated deeply with him. This experience prompted Vaquero to reconsider his approach to leadership and service. He found himself navigating new terrains externally and within his own mindset. The nightly reflections on the highs and lows of the day encouraged introspection, which fostered self-awareness and an understanding of his role as a leader and team member. Reflecting on this, Vaquero remarked, “I had heard of servant leadership but had never seen it in action, and it had a serious impact on me. The guides made me want to think about how I’m affecting others. They were the first people to help us with anything, regardless of condition or how tired they were. They catered to us and helped us with everything. It was amazing to see, and they gained so much respect from all of us.”

One of the most impactful moments of Vaquero’s expedition was his interactions with the Maasai people when the group visited a tribe after climbing Kilimanjaro. The Maasai, known for their distinctive clothing, intricate beadwork, and traditional way of life, left an indelible mark on him. The deep-rooted pride in their culture struck a chord with him and served as a powerful reminder of the importance of cultural heritage in a rapidly changing world. The Maasai’s openness and willingness to share their traditions created a sense of connection for Vaquero. He witnessed their traditional dances, listened to their stories, and participated in their rituals, gaining a firsthand understanding of their values and beliefs. This immersion provided a contrast to his daily life, prompting him to reflect on his own cultural identity and the significance of preserving one’s heritage.

A Transformative Journey

The lingering echo of “pole, pole” reverberates through the air atop Mount Kilimanjaro and within the hearts and minds of the twelve Southwestern students who embarked on this extraordinary journey with the Outdoor Adventure team to Tanzania. This Swahili mantra transcends its literal meaning of pacing and takes on a new one as each participant’s deliberate and transformative journey. It is a reminder of resilience, camaraderie, and the indomitable human spirit.

Learn more about this life-changing trip.