Adventure Semester 2015

Adventure Semester is a 10-week bootcamp for teenagers who want to build a life of freedom, adventure, and meaningful work.

Check out to see everything that the Adventure Semester 2015 did!

Welcome to Unschool Adventures’ newest, longest, and most ambitious program: Adventure Semester. Think of it as an intensive leadership training with all the fun, adventure, and community of our international trips and writing retreats.

If you’re ready to tackle 30+ fun and challenging mini-adventures, build real-world skills, live in close-knit community, and become more self-directed and self-motivated—this is the life-changing program you’ve been waiting for.

 When: September 13 – November 21, 2015 (10 weeks)

Where: Colorado

Who: 22 participants (ages 15-18, flexible)
A minimum of 18 participants is required to run this program

Program Leaders: Blake Boles, Dev Carey, Joel Malkoff, Ari Kosel, Addison Pond, and Tabi Musselwhite with assistance by Marian Pierce and Eric Viele
View leader profiles

How Much: $4,750 includes all lodging, meals, activities, and ground transportation.
Returning Unschool Adventures participants receive a 10% discount.
How can I fundraise for this program?

Arrival/Departure Location: Denver International Airport

Priority Application Date: March 15th, 2015

Application StatusFull!

Applications first opened on January 16th, 2015.

Build a Life of Freedom, Adventure, and Meaningful Work

At Unschool Adventures, we believe in the power of self-directed learning to transform lives.

But how do you become a powerful self-directed learner?

Specifically, how do you:

  • Motivate yourself reliably?
  • Take effective action?
  • Set goals in a way that leads to both commitment and freedom?
  • Find meaningful work?
  • Communicate clearly with other people?
  • Know and be true to yourself?
  • Build a life that’s ultimately your own?

We created Adventure Semester because we believe that the skills, habits, and attitudes of powerful self-directed learning can be gained through focused practice.

Adventure Semester is for teenagers who already have a foundation in these skills, habits, and attitudes—and who are passionate about taking them to the next level. It’s also for those who want to gain this kind of practice through fun and meaningful real-world adventures with other teenagers.

We call Adventure Semester a “bootcamp” because it’s designed to challenge and push you in an intensive, fast-paced way. But it’s not a military-style program in which we’ll shame you or make you do things against your will. Rather, think of Adventure Semester as a bootcamp for young adults who love their freedom and want to take full advantage of it.

Listen to Adventure Semester directors Blake and Dev explain what it’s all about:

Program Overview

wr14-pizzaAdventure Semester is a 10-week residential program for a group of 22 teenagers that takes place in three locations:

Part One: 5 weeks in Paonia, Colorado, at the off-grid High Desert Center on a wild mesa above a mecca of small organic farms.

Part Two: 4 weeks in Crested Butte, Colorado, a high mountain ski town, at a youth hostel inhabited exclusively by our group.

Part Three: 6 days in Denver, Colorado, at a big-city hostel.

The group stays together for the entire 10 weeks, migrating from one location to the next via charter bus.

The Adventures

During the Adventure Semester, each day brings a new adventure to be tackled by a group of 4-5 participants. (We do this by splitting the entire program into 4 or 5 groups.) Most adventures are 1-day long, while a few are 2- or 3-days long. There will be a few solo adventures as well, to create a healthy balance of alone and small group time.

The adventures are designed to be challenging, fun, diverse, and meaningful, with lessons that are transferable to all of life. Some will challenge your communication skills and have you reaching out to strangers or potential mentors and trying on new roles. Others will build your entrepreneurial skills, ask you to craft letters of introduction to accomplished people or publish a quality video online. Yet others will have you outside climbing high mountains, harvesting and preparing local foods, or sneaking unseen through the countryside.

As the semester progresses, the Adventure Semester staff will choose and assign specific adventures from their (very long) list of possibilities based on the needs and appropriate challenge levels of each group. Groups members will be constantly reshuffled, with the goal of having every participant work with every other participant at some point. As your abilities and comfort level increases, so will the scope and rigor of the adventures. Every few weeks you’ll also use your new skills to design and carry out your own, self-designed adventure.

Here’s a representative sample of the type of adventures you’ll undertake:

  • Get rejected 20 times—e.g. asking to directly talk to JK Rowling or asking for a job or internship. (1 day)
  • Write a strong, well-researched and potentially controversial editorial/article and submit it to multiple newspapers or magazines. (1 day)
  • Find three strangers and do your best to extract their full life stories. (1 day)
  • Sit in on a college lecture course and strike up a conversation with the professor afterwards. (1 day)
  • Perform 5 acts of radical kindness for strangers. (1 day)
  • Find a place in the woods before dawn and sit there quietly without moving for 8 hours. (1 day)
  • Learn calculus to the extent that you can solve basic calculus problems and explain it in a way that others get it. (1 day)
  • Create a micro-business (either online or in-person) and earn at least $100 from strangers. (2 days)
  • Walk to another place 15-25 miles away without being seen by other people. (2 days)
  • Turn $5 into the largest amount of money possible using only your wits. (2 days)
  • Act like you’re starting an independent life in a city: Tour potential rooms and apartments, apply to 5 jobs, create a budget, understand public transport, and explore community events. (3 days)
  • Assist our chef with preparing, serving, and cleaning up lunch and dinner. (A different group will do this each day.)

If some of these adventures sound difficult, potentially uncomfortable, or way outside your previous experience—that’s by design. But don’t worry. Every adventure you undertake will be 100% supported by a staff member who will help you discover strategies for success, stay on track, communicate effectively with your group, and learn from both your failures and successes.

By the end of the program, you’ll have a huge number of real-world experiences under your belt that will help you become a person who:

  • Feels comfortable jumping into big, messy problems that don’t have clear solutions.
  • Works well in a small group and can take on multiple roles (e.g. leader, follower, analyst, cheerleader).
  • Sees failure as an opportunities for learning.
  • Has a stronger concept of who they are and the many lifestyles and work paths available to them.
  • Possesses an enthusiastic optimism for facing life’s challenges and uncertainty.

Whether you’re moving on to school, college, or full-time self-directed learning, these skills and attitudes will serve you for years to come. This will be a empowering and life-changing experience.

Online Publishing

At the conclusion of every adventure (in the evening), each group publishes a digital summary of their adventure through a written blog post or video. These summaries include:

  • A brief summary of the challenge presented.
  • The story of your group’s initial brainstorms, decision-making process, attempt(s) at completing the challenge, and the successes and failures you encountered. (We place a big emphasis on honest sharing of failures.)
  • “What we would do differently next time” and advice for others attempting the same challenge.

These summaries will be posted publicly on the Internet. In the beginning, it will probably just be your families and a few people in the Unschool Adventures community that see them. But as we hone our publishing skills, we’ll aim to make these blog posts and videos more interesting and accessible to a general audience. By the end of the Adventure Semester, our goal is to create a big, free library of “how-to” videos and blog posts that show teenagers across the world how to go on amazing adventures.

Finally, in addition to the online publishing, each group will offer a brief, live presentation summarizing their adventure to the rest of the Adventure Semester group. These nightly presentations will serve to excite each other for upcoming challenges, educate each other regarding effective strategies, and hone our public speaking skills.

Community Life

In Paonia (the first 5 weeks), your life will be off-the-grid. Your energy will come from the sun, your eggs from the local chickens and apples from the tree, and you’ll shower outside (in private). You’ll meet farmers and people who live in houses made out of tires or cob or straw bale, see eagles and pluck raspberries from mountainsides, and sleep in a bunk house or a tipi. Our time in Paonia will overlap with the Harvest Festival, which you’ll get to enjoy through our adventures and in your free time. Adventures in Paonia will focus on exploring the outdoors, group dynamics, and reflecting deeply on your life and role in the world.

In Crested Butte (the next 4 weeks), you’ll experience a high-mountain ski town filled with small businesses, coffee shops, and a friendly small-town culture. Our group will rent out the entire Crested Butte Hostel where you’ll stay in bunk bed rooms with views of the high Rockies. Your creature comforts will be fulfilled (including high-speed internet and reliable cell phone service), making it possible to tackle more complex challenges. Adventures in Crested Butte will focus on entrepreneurial challenges, online professional development, and introducing yourself to interesting strangers.

In Denver (the final 6 days), you’ll learn how to comfortably navigate a big city and take advantage of its unique resources. Every day will involve walking the city streets, taking public transportation, exploring large institutions, and seeking out the individuals who might help you answer your biggest life questions. We’ll stay in a downtown hostel where we will have our own bunk rooms while sharing the common areas with other guests. Adventures in Denver will focus on exploring big-city resources, building community, and learning how to lead a financially independent life.

A Day in the Life

Here’s a general outline of how days on the Adventure Semester will be organized. Times are approximate and will shift according to the needs of specific groups and specific adventures.

  • 9:00pm: Each new day will begin the prior evening, when small groups will meet and plan the next day’s adventure. (A dedicated staff member will mentor your group through the entire process.)
  • 9:00am: The next morning, you prepare your own breakfast, and the adventure begins and carries the group through the day. You’ll be engaged and challenged, and the time will fly.
  • 1:00pm: Lunch is either served hot or provided in take-away brown bags.
  • 4:00pm: Before you know it, the adventure will be over and it will be time to decide how best to present it to the larger group and publish a summary online.
  • 6:00pm: Next comes a large luxurious dinner (prepared and served by the food adventure group), followed by presentations and fun.
  • Finally, you meet in your small group again to plan the next day’s adventure. We recommend going to sleep before midnight, but like college students, you will have the freedom to stay up and work late if desired.

The structure of each day may look the same, but every day will feel radically different. Some days you’ll be in a city, others in the wilderness. Some days you’ll be practicing the habits of a successful CEO; other days you’ll feel like a hobo around a campfire. Some days will be about challenging your body and other days it will be about your mind or emotions. In the end, each and every day of Adventure Semester will become a unique and memorable story.

Weekly Schedule

Participants get one full day off each week. A second day is devoted to self and home care, a communication workshop, a community meal, and an evening of fun. The remaining five days are chock-full of adventures.

Communication Workshops

Effective communication is so crucial to just about everything in life that we give it extra attention in the form of regular workshops. The goal is to develop communication practices that are authentic, inspiring, and effective, while also enhancing learning and a sense of freedom and adventure.

Sample communication workshop topics include:

  • Active listening and co-counseling
  • Giving (and receiving) effective feedback
  • Body language
  • Stories and labels about ourselves and others
  • Partner dancing as communication
  • Self-coaching

College Credits (Not) Available

(Updated April 7th, 2015)

Unfortunately we were not able to secure 8 optional college credits for leadership training through Western State Colorado University. We regret this development and apologize for any dashed hopes!


Frequently Asked Questions

New: In this audio file Dev and Blake address the following questions:

  • (0:20) How is it possible to learn calculus in one day?
  • (2:21) I’m in school right now. How can I join the Adventure Semester?
  • (6:00) Can I join if I’m 12 or 13? Also: If I’m 18 or 19, will I still be challenged?
What are the extra costs?
The Adventure Semester program fee includes three meals a day, lodging, and group activities. The fee does not cover travel to and from Denver from your home.

We recommend bringing $200 for snacks and general spending money throughout the 10 weeks.

During the final week in Denver, we will only be able to provide super-simple bag lunches (e.g. PB & J sandwiches with chips and fruit); you may want to budget a little extra money to buy lunches if those won't satisfy you.
What is the housing, food, and laundry situation?
In Crested Butte and Denver you'll stay in a heated bunk-bed dorm room with 3-5 other participants of the same gender. In Paonia your accommodations will be more rustic, and you'll find yourself in either a tent, tipi, or simple indoor bed without heating. Don't worry--you'll have a sleeping bag, and extra blankets are always available. In every location, you'll have limited space for your clothes and other personal belongings; get excited for the challenge of living out of your suitcase or backpack!

Our meals will be crafted from simple, wholesome, and local (whenever feasible) ingredients. About half the meals will be vegetarian, and half will offer some sort of meat. We can accommodate basic gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan participants. We unfortunately cannot accommodate more complex diets or those that require a special kitchen (e.g. celiac). Lunches and dinners are prepared for participants, while breakfasts are build-it-yourself. We heavily involve our participants in the preparation, serving, and clean-up of meals.

Laundry services will be available once a week, paid for by Unschool Adventures. We'll probably ask you for help doing it!
What physical fitness level is required?
Roughly three of the challenges will ask participants to walk long distances, including a mountain climb with lots of uphill. We want all participants to attempt these challenges, but if it's not working for you, then we'll happily shift your challenge to something else for the day.
How much free time do I get?
You'll receive one full day off each week, with zero expectations from Adventure Semester staff, unless you volunteer to help with food that day. You'll also have about half a day off (immediately preceding the full day off) that will begin after we take care of housekeeping (weekly all-group chores and personal area clean-up).

Throughout the adventure days, you'll have limited free time, and it will mostly be in the evening; expect an hour or two on the average day. It will occasionally be four or zero.

In Paonia, your easiest free time opportunities will include taking a walk to town, going swimming, or reading a book.

In Crested Butte, there's an entire small town to explore at your fingertips, as well as many hiking opportunities. Our Writing Retreat groups have enjoyed going to open mic events, joining the Halloween parade, and relaxing in coffee shops. (There's also a free shuttle up to the Mount Crested Butte ski village.)

In Denver, we'll stay pretty busy during our brief stay there, but we promise you'll have at least one night to go on your own adventure in the big city!
When is the full program fee due, and what is the refund policy?
After receiving your offer of enrollment, we will hold your spot with a $1500 nonrefundable deposit, with the remainder of the balance due 3 months before the program starts.

Refund Policy:
The first $1500 is a non-refundable deposit. All payments beyond the first $1500 are refundable until 3 months before departure date. After that point, all payments are nonrefundable.
What special equipment do I need to bring?
1. Sleeping bag (rated to 32 degrees or lower)
2. Laptop or iPad (for creating blog posts and other online content)
3. Smartphone, camera, flip-cam, and/or other device for capturing photo/video. (Highly recommended, but not required.)
A full packing list will be provided upon enrollment. You'll need basic outdoor clothing that keeps you warm and dry, plus a pair of broken-in walking shoes.
How much wi-fi and cell phone service will be available?
There will be cell phone reception in all locations (though Verizon is weak in Paonia). We recommend that all participants bring a cell phone to stay in touch with people at home.

Crested Butte and Denver will have fast wi-fi connections. Paonia is a rural location with limited wi-fi capacity, so don't plan on Skyping or streaming videos there.
How can I afford this trip?
Check out our fundraising page for ideas and inspiration!
How can the Adventure Semester help me with college?
If college is on the horizon for you, Adventure Semester is a great way to prepare. The self-directed learning skills and group skills you'll gain on Adventure Semester will prepare you for the challenges of college in ways that few other programs can.
Can I do the Adventure Semester instead of going to high school for a semester?
Yes! You essentially need to declare yourself to be a homeschooler for the semester. Write U.A. director Blake Boles ( for more advice.
Can I join if I'm younger than 15 or older than 18?
Maybe! We will consider 19- and 20-year-olds who feel like an exceptionally good fit for Adventure Semester and will clearly function well in a group of younger participants. We will consider 14-year-old applicants who are exceptionally mature, prepared for the challenges presented, and ready to integrate into an older peer group.
I'm ready! How does the application and enrollment process work?
1. Click the "Apply" button on this page, fill out the online application form, and pay the $40 nonrefundable application fee. Apply before the priority application deadline, March 15th, for your best chance of joining!

2. Beginning March 16th, we will begin scheduling Skype interviews. (In the unlikely case that we have extremely few applicants, this is also the date that we would decide to cancel the program.) Every Unschool Adventure applicant--including returning participants--is required to do a 15-30 minute Skype interview to ensure that you and the program are a good fit for each other. Don't worry: it's pretty fun and painless!

3. After we interview everyone who applied before the priority application deadline, we will make our first round of enrollment offers. When you receive your offer, we'll also send you the full enrollment paperwork (including detailed program policies, packing list, and our consent and liability form). You'll have two weeks to make your enrollment decision.

4. After the priority application deadline, we will accept applications and schedule interviews on a first-come, first-serve basis until the program is full.

5. Regardless of when you enroll, we'll need a $1500 nonrefundable deposit and your full enrollment paperwork to secure your spot on the trip.

6. After you've secured your spot, we'll provide instructions for when and where to arrive and depart from the program in Denver. Figure that out for yourself, and you're all set!
How is it possible to learn Calculus in one day?
(Program leader Dev Carey wrote the following response to a potential participant.)

First, of course, you are right that nobody is going to master Calculus in a day. I, like you, spent a year studying Calculus and that only after all those other courses (algebra, trigonometry, etc.).

That said, I think it quite possible to understand in one day what kinds of problems Calculus is useful for solving and how to do very basic derivatives and integrals and why it works. I believe this because I have done this kind of adventure before (both trigonometry and algebra in one day with 13-14 year olds), because I have explained the big picture of calculus before to older students in a day and had them grasp it, and because I have had a number of math friends in my life who believe it somewhat of a crime that we don't share the joys of calculus and other kinds of creative "higher level" math skills with young people. Instead we make them wade through all this basic arithmetic first, which is a very different kind of thinking, to the point where most people drop out of math before they even get to the creative, multi-dimensional, fun part of math, thinking that they are too dumb or bored to understand it or want to understand it.

In summary, I believe that our limited habits in teaching math results in young people limiting the potential of their own brains, and that this adventure is very powerful precisely because it goes against all this. Easily said, I realize, and the real test will come when we try it, but even if we "fail," which I don't think we'll do, I think we can fail in a way that is empowering and valuable in the overall picture. That is because this adventure is only partially about Calculus and largely about practicing the ability to focus our brains for several hours in a row on an intimidating topic.
Photo Credits
All photos were taken by 2014 Unschool Adventures and Southwest Gap Year participants:
  • Damian
  • Monica
  • Mckinley
Please do not re-use any photos without asking for explicit permission.

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