It’s a phenomenon that’s happened countless times in innumerable locales since Terri Watson took her first course with Wyoming’s National Outdoor Leadership School in 1990. She’ll be at a cocktail party, a conference or casual gathering and she’ll meet someone else who has taken a NOLS course. Inevitably, she says, the person tells her the course changed their life.
“That is the single most common phrase I hear from any NOLS grad,” Watson said. “And if there’s anything that made me want to come back, it’s that.”
The pilot, military veteran and nonprofit expert, who has worked for NOLS in various capacities for decades, is coming back in a big way. Watson will step into the role of president in January, taking the reins from John Gans, who is wrapping up a 24-year stint at the NOLS helm.
As president, she will oversee one of central Wyoming’s largest private employers and economic engines. Headquartered in Lander, NOLS employs 1,400 individuals worldwide and enrolls some 28,000 students annually. She’ll also be taking over perhaps the most prominent organization in outdoor education during a critical transition — most of the school’s long-standing six-person executive team will have stepped aside in a few short years.
Watson says her first task will be talking to employees to understand the nuances around the current state of the school. NOLS has undergone exponential growth in the last two decades all while the landscape of outdoor education has changed dramatically. As a result, Watson said, the nonprofit is grappling with some growing pains.
“I want to do a lot of listening, but I also want to start creating solutions,” she said.
‘Wyoming was always the place to be’
Watson grew up in Virginia, but spent much of her childhood summers and holidays visiting Wyoming — her mother’s home state. Her family would fly to Denver, then take a puddle jumper to Sheridan. Those trips left an indelible impression on her.
“Growing up, Wyoming was always the place to be,” Watson said. “And the way that we got here actually I feel like defined the two things I love in life: Travel — and wilderness and exploration — and flying.”
Those interests went on to shape her life. As a student at the College of William and Mary, she attended a six-week Army flight school. That secured her an aviation slot in the military. After earning a degree in geology and physical education, she entered the Army as a helicopter and then, fixed-wing pilot, working as an aerial intelligence specialist.
She learned of NOLS while serving. A soldier in her unit carried around a NOLS course catalog. Like many eventual NOLS students, she spent hours with it, ogling the expedition pictures and reading about the courses. At the time, she said, one of her favorite challenges in the Army was learning how to build effective teams.
“And then I saw that there was this NOLS instructor course, and I was like, ‘oh they teach you how to do that,’” she said.
She applied to the course, and was accepted despite being clear that she had no intention of working for NOLS. In 1990 she came back to Wyoming to learn the NOLS curriculum, and how to apply it, on an instructor’s course expedition that took her to Split Rock, the Ferris Mountains and Red Canyon.
“And I just fell in love with it,” she said.
Right after the course, she was offered work on a three-week course in the Absarokas. She decided to pick it up.
“That course was a series of epic outdoor adventures,” she said. “Literally my first day hiking with students we got lost and spent the night out without tents. It was like, ‘yes!’ … I came back from that course and knew that I actually did want to work for NOLS very badly.”
She spent a year rearranging her life, and then returned to Lander to begin working for NOLS full-time. Watson taught in Wyoming and Mexico before becoming the director of the school’s southwest location in 1996. She became a wilderness medicine instructor in 1999, something she continues to do today.
Along the way, she launched a business called Winds Aloft Aviation, offering scenic flights to photographers and sightseers. That led to fire and animal recon gigs with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. She eventually pivoted to a series of flying jobs, piloting at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, for Air Idaho Rescue and on a military contract overseas.
She and her wife moved to California, where they lived on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay for eight years and Watson got into conservation work. She started consulting, and realized she has a knack for assessing organizations and figuring out how to run them more effectively.
That’s what she’s done at LightHawk, a nonprofit that supports conservation initiatives through a network of volunteer pilots. Watson rebuilt LightHawk’s business model and is currently the CEO. (She started as a volunteer pilot)
That scope of experience — from field instructor to nonprofit maven — is what made Watson such an appealing candidate for NOLS’ new president, said board Vice Chairman Greg Avis.
“She has a history with NOLS so she understands it … but she also has experience in the outside world,” he said. “I think she brings a lot of what NOLS needs. If there’s any word that describes the kind of person we were looking for, it would be ‘bridge.’”
‘Foundations are meant to be built upon’
Much has changed since Watson was last employed full-time at NOLS. The school was founded on teaching leadership and technical outdoor skills on extended wilderness expeditions, and when Watson moved on that was still its bread and butter. NOLS since acquired the Wilderness Medicine Institute, and today the institute’s offerings — mostly shorter courses that often take place largely in the classroom — comprise the vast majority of NOLS courses. NOLS has also added a custom education division that offers specialized training for groups like NASA astronauts and Google executives, as well as risk management training.
With a $40 million budget, nearly 30,000 students a year, 16 campuses around the world and offerings ranging from semester courses in Patagonia to sea kayaking in Baja and backpacking in the jungles of Thailand, NOLS has become one of the world’s most prominent outdoor educators.
A lot of that is due to the work of Gans. When he started the job, NOLS had zero endowment, 2,500 students a year and was run scattershot out of rented spaces all over Lander, he said. He oversaw the growth with the goal of making NOLS last; today its endowment is nearing $45 million.
“I think we’re handing off a really solid foundation, but foundations are meant to be built upon.” Gans said. Watson’s well-rounded experience makes her an apt candidate, but more than that, “she has a passion about moving this school forward,” he said.
Growth is a good thing, Watson said, but it can also be unwieldy. She intends to address that challenge. She was recently in Lander for the school’s annual wilderness medicine staff training. She met a lot of staff, talked with board members and began the process of wrapping her head around the state of the school. She still has a lot to learn, she said, and while she has no intention of coming in and cleaning house, she hears a desire for changes.
“It’s just been so positive,” she said of her trip, “and I’m getting a really consistent message of excitement and people being ready for changes.”
The first woman
In a second-story hallway in NOLS’ headquarters in Lander, framed photographs of the school’s past chief executives hang in a line, from its famed founder Paul Petzoldt — who started NOLS from a cabin in Sinks Canyon in 1965 — to Gans. All are white males.
Much has been made about the fact that Watson is the school’s first female president. To her though, it’s not a big deal. In her career in aviation and the military, she said, she’s been the first woman in a number of roles.
“For about three days it’ll be news,” she said. “Then it’s like, OK now can we just do our thing?”
And the stereotype that people try to bring female pioneers down hasn’t matched Watson’s experience. “My experience is the vast majority are like, ‘this is cool, how can I help you succeed?’”
The distinction isn’t something that’s on the top of her mind, but, she says, “it actually is important for younger women, younger people to see.”
After all, she said, it lines up with one of her goals: continuing to ramp up NOLS’ diversity, equity and inclusion policies. Others include ensuring access to public lands, battling climate change and helping the school define what it wants to be.
On a personal level, Watson is excited to return to Wyoming, she said. It’s a place that’s been drawing her back since childhood. And NOLS is a huge part of that. There’s a reason she’s stayed connected to the school, instructing a course or two nearly every year since she left her full-time position there.
“My joke is, it’s a virus that’s incurable,” she said. “But the truth is, the NOLS community is a place that once you become part of it, you can’t leave and don’t want to leave.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of Watson’s business, Winds Aloft Aviation. —ED.