Successfully Claiming Adulthood: Washington State University 4-H Rites of Passage - by Larry Hobbs, Michael Wallace, Scott Vanderwey

Once or twice a year, in the late spring or early summer, a handful of carefully prepared and eager young people go into the deserts and mountains of central Washington for a very specific purpose: to find the courage to become adults. The WSU 4-H Rite of Passage (ROP) program has been offering coming of age ceremonies to youth and ongoing professional development for adult wilderness guides and guides-in-training for over ten years. A recent inquiry into the effects and efficacy of the program brought almost immediate responses from several former participating youth and adults. In addition to a unanimous respect for the program’s ability to bring about personal growth and transition, conversations of the respondents also revolved around how to continue to support and strengthen this unique opportunity for others.

The Need
In our globalized society, youth find challenges to successful development and maturation from a seemingly unlimited number of sources: peer pressure, families in crisis, the increased availability of prescription and illegal drugs (Johnston,2010), several forms of media saturation (Carr,2010; Young, 2009), “Nature Deficit Disorder” (Louv,2005) and an array of sedentary leisure time activities (Tremblay,, 2011).

The last decade of child-rearing trends in America reveals increased, and sometimes anxiety-driven, emphasis on academic and social achievement, earlier emphasis to career planning (frequently middle school) and high stakes tests driving competitive placements (Dunnewold, 2008). Despite this push for increased competency in young people, researchers and sociologists have begun to report growing trends of delayed adolescence and maturation (Arrnet,2000), growing social disenfranchisement and alarming trends of increased mental illness in college students (Becker,2015). Growing research on both brain development and mental health is indicating that young people seem to be struggling more than preceding generations to create integrated personalities, and the problem appears to be getting progressively worse.

A period of identity exploration is developmentally appropriate and encouraged for pre-teen youth. Late adolescence traditionally signaled a time to “make decisions” identifying career and roles for adulthood. (Marcia,1966). While there appears to be vast social concern to ensure successful development of young people, there seems little evidence they are being empowered to have a voice in these processes (Brendtro 1990). Neither of these developmental opportunities (identity exploration and achievement) can be accessed by youth without some awakening and grounding of their autonomy and personal values.
The Rite of Passage
Both theory and research suggest that significant rites of passage for youth can provide a respite from engaging in antisocial encoding and negative identity construction. (Friese and others 1995; Moore and Russell 2002; Ewert et. al. 2011). Rites of passage can offer alternatives to the increasingly negative outcomes of differentiating through narcissism, substance abuse, thrill seeking and the destructive disassociation from human empathy. Contact with the natural world, and a period of isolation, offers teens a chance to hear themselves and others more clearly (Knapp & Smith, 2005).

Wilderness Experience Programs (WEPs) can be classified into three types: therapeutic, personal-growth and educational. The 4-H Rite of Passage Program is defined as a non-therapeutic personal-growth wilderness experience program (Dawson & Russell, 2012). Rites of passage are founded on the extremely old practice of marking life transitions with memorable self-generated and culturally-generated ceremony. Building off of many global traditions, and the seminal works of Steven Foster and Meredith Little (Foster & Little1997), the 4-H Rite of Passage program was implemented to offer teens a very structured process for initiating, recognizing and implementing communally recognized, intentional transitions into adulthood. At the heart of these rites is a personal challenge that requires participants to engage in an extended period (72 hours) of isolation in the natural world. Of equal importance is the time the field guides spend empowering participants to form or rescript positive personal narratives that give them hope for the future. The majority of these 4-H ROP experiences have taken place in the deserts and mountains of Central Washington, although several have also taken place on the west side of the state.
WEPs have been reported to enhance self-esteem and personal empowerment measurements. (Harper and Russell,2008; Hartig,et al. 1991; Moore and Russell 2002; Ewert et al., 2011). Due to their accountability standards, Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) therapeutic WEPs have typically gathered greater data of outcomes than their personal growth program counterparts. Some of the same measurement tools might be viable for use with the personal growth focused WEP. While the methods and outcomes of 4-H Rite of Passage may bare some similarity to therapeutic WEP’s, its aims are developmental empowerment, not behavioral change. Additional benefits of the 4-H Rite of Passage would be its cost to families and non-punitive or correctional pedagogy. The growing field of relational neurobiology reaffirms the beneficial outcomes inherent when young people are given the opportunity to integrate cognitive awareness and construction of meaningful personal narrative. (Siegel, 2012).

Since its inception in 2003, the WSU 4-H Rite of Passage has mentored and guided an estimated 140 youth through their transitions to adulthood. In addition, each year the program has introduced adults to the Rite of Passage by offering guide trainings. Many of these individuals have become fully trained guides and powerful program advocates. As of 2016 there were approximately 75 adults in a queue eager to become 4-H ROP guides. Several of these have branched off from WSU and used their training to assist other local WEPs and youth programs. (see list).

Preparing Facilitators
The program has been in a continuous state of refinement since it began, with adult and youth handbooks, (Foster,, 2008) and a tiered process for ROP guide professional development. (WSU, 2016) Beyond understanding the steps of ceremonial preparation and the pedagogy of “the four shields” (Foster & Little, 1999) there is a very clear list of requirements for becoming a Rite of Passage guide, including first aid training, technical wilderness survival training and numerous field hours shadowing lead guides. An ROP guide has a very special mentoring relationship with transitioning youth, and a ”mirroring” discourse that is structured similarly to appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) and active/deep listening (Gordon,2003, Stine,1999 ) The process leads to empowerment of the participant and a recognition and honoring of their individual gifts. The training expectations for Rite of Passage Guides far exceed that of a traditional 4-H club leader, and currently demand more hours than any other 4-H program. The commitment to the program is demonstrated by those who share its vision.

Preparing Youth
The preparation of youth is a very serious matter. The intention of the program is to support young people in claiming their adulthood, which means their communities must be ready to recognize them as adults upon their return. The process of “letting go” of the vestiges of the life one is leaving is known as “severance.” Young people are encouraged to begin the process long before the actual Rite of Passage ‘threshold” experience in the wilderness, and without a doubt, the more serious a young person is about marking the transition, the more successful the experience will be. Youth are trained in wilderness survival and potential effects of the ceremonial experience (isolation, hunger, fear, the possibility of real change). The threshold experience is more than just “going out into the wilderness alone.” Teens are prepared with at least two days of group intensive interviews, and reaffirmed by at least two days of group intensive debriefing upon their return. The program’s effects are expected to manifest (“incorporation”) for at least a year following the threshold experience. Outcomes of a ROP experience can easily be bolstered through effective community mentoring.


Future Directions for the Rite of Passage Program:
Rite of Passage guides and “guides-in-training” have had numerous conversations about building capacity in the program, seeking bridges to more traditional audiences that will help them access the opportunities provided through 4-H ROP.
A challenge for the 4-H Youth Development program has been that the ROP experience is usually offered to teens that are on the cusp of exiting the youth development program. Several people who have trained in the ROP program have attempted to bridge that challenge by creating “pre-teen” ROP activities in other educational venues, focusing on experiences more appropriate to the developing needs of the emerging adolescent.

Discussion has also evolved around the need to engage the communities from which the youth come. The ROP program does advocate 6 months to a year of preparation before stepping into the actual wilderness experience, and another year following the experience to make sure the knowledge of the threshold experience takes hold. ROP advocates are currently designing a mentoring component that can be used to inform the general public of the programs purpose while preparing youth through more intentional severance. Community mentors would not have to be field trained ROP guides, but could be instrumental in scaffolding the transitional experience, both before and after the solo time in the wilderness. Exposure to the language of the Rite of Passage could also help them communicate more deeply with their mentee. Based on the directions that ROP trainees and advocates have taken, this mentoring guide will most likely provide guidance for a preteen and a young adult severance model for 4-H Rite of Passage.

The Common Measure tool provided by National 4-H also offers potential outcomes related to healthy living, growth mind-set, self-esteem and career college readiness that would be appropriate for Rite of Passage evaluation. (N4H)

Circles of Influence
Many of the individuals who have participated in the Rite of Passage adult guide training have gone on to offer their knowledge, skills and experience to other organizations and programs.

This is a partial list of organizations that have benefited from individuals trained in WSU 4-H Rite of Passage program:

Alaska Crossings, Wrangell, AK
Alberni School District, Vancouver Island, Canada
Wascowitz Environmental Leadership School
Cedar Tree Montessori, Bellingham, WA
City University of Seattle (Vancouver, Victoria)
Canadventure Education(Wilderness Therapy for Youth) Sayward, B.C. Canada
Cascades Montessori Middle School, Bellingham WA
Chinook Observer, Pacific County
Clatsop County Teen Advocacy Coalition, OR
Coast Weekend, Astoria, OR
Friday Harbor High School
Grassroots Martial Arts, Square One Counseling, Bellingham WA
Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Paris, France
Jesuit High School, Portland, OR
Kayak Tillamook, LLC
Mason County 4-H
Mason County 4-H Summer Forestry Leadership Program
Mason County Detention Services
Mason County Probation Services
Montessori at Samish Woods, Bellingham, WA
Nanaimo School District, Vancouver Island, Canada
Naropa University, CO
Our Lady of the Rock, Benedictine Monastery, San Juan Isl., WA
Pacific County Community Historian Project, WA
Panhandle Lake 4-H Camp & Camp Long
Pinchot University, OR
Portland Waldorf School
Renton School District, WA
Rooted Emerging, Bellingham, WA
San Juan Island Community Foundation
San Juan Island Prevention Coalition
San Juan County Health & Community Services Department
Sehome High School, Bellingham WA
Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, Spokane WA
Shelton School District
Spring Street International School
Three Leaves Counseling, Jeffery Howard, Private Practice
United Way of San Juan County
University of Washington Labs, Cedar Rock Preserve
Victoria School District, Vancouver Island, Canada
United Way of San Juan County
Whatcom Hills Waldorf, Bellingham, WA
Wild Whatcom, Bellingham, WA
Fairhaven College, Western Washington University
Mason County Probation Services, WA
Wellspring (International poverty response nonprofit)
Western Washington University
Wilderness Awareness School, Duvall WA
WSU San Juan County Extension

Michael Wallace, M.Ed. Associate Professor, WSU Regional Specialist;
Larry Hobbs, M.A., Lead Guide WSU 4-H Rite of Passage Program; School of Lost Borders
Scott Vanderwey, Assistant Professor, WSU Adventure Education Specialist

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No yearning for an afterlife,
no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.

Ranier Maria Rilke