Mountains serve as classroom for Air Force cadets learning leadership

At the Stone Bridge put-in on the Arkansas River, cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy and CMC outdoor faculty get ready for a run to Salida. Photo by Carrie Click
At the Stone Bridge put-in on the Arkansas River, cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy and CMC outdoor faculty get ready for a run to Salida. Photo by Carrie Click
At the Stone Bridge put-in on the Arkansas River, cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy and CMC outdoor faculty get ready for a run to Salida. Photo by Carrie Click


Original article published August 4, 2021

A group of 90 United States Air Force Academy cadets from around the world are taking to the trails, rivers and crags of the Upper Arkansas River Valley this summer. Known as the Outdoor Leadership Development Program, the experience is offered through a collaboration with Colorado Mountain College and is designed to teach cadets leadership skills while improving social and emotion intelligence.

“The Naval Academy and West Point, they have the universities and corporations of the East Coast,” said Lt. Col. David Huston, who works within the United States Air Force Academy’s (USAFA) Center For Character and Leadership Development. “But we are the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs with Leadville and Buena Vista practically in our backyard. There’s so much to learn from here.”

Last week, Huston, Vice Commandant of Cadets Col. Clarence Lukes Jr. and about 15 cadets learned watercraft skills near Buena Vista before playing kayak soccer in Cottonwood Creek. Many of the participants, including Lukes Jr., had never been in a kayak before. Meanwhile, cadets who had already been in the water were mountain biking in Leadville, rock climbing in Buena Vista or backpacking around French Mountain in the Sawatch Range.

The cadets, all juniors and seniors at USAFA who came in three groups of 30 throughout the summer, are staying in dorm rooms at the Colorado Mountain College (CMC) Leadville campus, and will earn academic credit as CMC students this summer. Last year only eight cadets enrolled in the program, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also because 2020 was the program’s first year. After USAFA and CMC discussed expanding the initiative this year, about 90 cadets either volunteered or were mandated to participate this summer.

“I like to imagine cadets, who CMC can now consider alumni, flying above us in aircraft after they’ve graduated,” said Matt Gianneschi, chief operating officer and chief of staff at CMC. “It’s really great for us to be able to make some contribution to USAFA and the next generation of our nation’s military.”

According to Huston, that next generation needs to develop values like those emphasized in CMC’s outdoor recreation leadership program, which teaches CMC students group development, leadership theory and conflict resolution. In 2019, Huston approached CMC with the idea to collaborate. Since then, program directors have developed a summer curriculum that not only teaches cadets recreation skills, like kayaking, but also social and emotional intelligence in team dynamics. Throughout the three-week program, instructors at USAFA and CMC alternated in demonstrating these values.

“Those interpersonal skills are the emphasis of this program,” said Amy Smallwood, associate dean of academics and student affairs at CMC in Leadville. “We’re working with cadets on broadening their character framework to include things like active listening, communication, transparency and trust — all things that are necessary for these types of recreation activities where there is inherent risk involved.”

Another trait that Huston said the program works to improve is growth mindset, a concept created by psychologist Carol Dweck in 2015 which asserts that people can develop any ability through dedication and hard work. Last week, growth mindset development was especially evident as a few straight-faced, white-knuckled cadets, who had never been in a kayak before, learned to wet exit their watercraft. Although some were skeptical before tipping into the water, all cadets were comfortable enough for kayak soccer just hours later.

So far, cadets seem to be learning from the program. According to a survey of last year’s eight cadet participants, nearly all said that they’d improved aspects of their growth mindset and learned more about their strengths and weaknesses as team members and leaders. Huston said that this year’s cadets have echoed similar sentiments.

Chanyuthea Nou, a squadron 40 class of 2023 cadet from Cambodia,  said that the program pushed him out of his comfort zone and taught him more about himself. When Nou and his group went backpacking near Leadville, they got lost and the cadet helped track down the hidden trail. Nou also took to mountain biking and showed off a few leg scars from a hard fall in Buena Vista.

“These are things I do for fun already,” said Andrew Puseman, a squadron 26 class of 2022 cadet from Bailey, “but it’s been really cool to have the opportunity to bike and climb with new people.” Puseman, along with Chia-Hsiang Shen, a squadron 32 class of 2023 cadet, also spent a lot of time along Harrison Avenue, visiting the Manhattan Bar and the Silver Dollar Saloon, and walking to Tacos La Mina for one-dollar tacos on Tuesdays. “Everyone is really kind,” said Shen. “I’ve really enjoyed being here.”

With the program having grown significantly in its second year, representatives of both USAFA and CMC hope to continue the summer courses. “I’m not sure that outdoor learning was necessarily the intention when USAFA was built in Colorado 70 years ago,” said Lukes Jr. “But this is such a valuable experience for these cadets, and I’d like to see it continued.”