The University of Montana - Elementary Education
Whitney Kugler has one of those jobs that you hear about and think, “Wow, someone actually does that for a living?” She is a wilderness field instructor for Second Nature, a wilderness therapy program in Utah. In her job Whitney gets to hike outdoors, teach those in the program important survival skills like how to build fires, and most importantly, help others discover themselves through daily therapy sessions. An avid traveler, Whitney spent time in Vietnam where she volunteered in orphanages for a summer. More recently, she traveled through Central America for nine months as a volunteer working on organic farms. In addition to her fondness for helping others and traveling, Whitney loves her family, yoga and recently became engaged.
Move and the way will come.
How did you find your job? What has been your path so far to get you where you are today?
I’ve always had big ambitions to get out and get to know the world and the people in it. I decided if I wanted to do so, I would work hard and not let anyone stand in my way. I’ve made traveling and having adventures a priority in my life and have not been let down. During college I traveled to Vietnam where I volunteered in several orphanages over the summer. It sparked a lot of emotion and passion. After graduating I worked for a couple of years saving money, and then I moved to Central America for nine months where I did volunteer work on organic farms. It was a difficult transition when I came back to the States. I had to decide where to go next. Wilderness therapy is something I had been interested in for several years, so I started looking into it more seriously. It seemed as though the doors of opportunity kept opening. “Move and the way will come.” That has been my path and mantra.
Was there any one situation that helped you along your way?
I can’t pick any one situation. I feel like every choice I have made, and experience I’ve had -- good and bad -- has led me to where I am today. Having a loving, supportive family and fiancé has been an incredibly helpful force.
What is your typical day like? Does it ever change?
There is no typical day in wilderness therapy. Each new morning brings different experiences, challenges and adventures. However, there are some staples of a routine day.We typically backpack anywhere from two to 10 miles a day, set up camp and cook meals, hold several daily therapy sessions, play games, work on academic and therapy assignments, practice hard skills such as fire-making with bow drills, wood carving, knot tying, etc., and sleep. Change is inevitable in the field. We have staff changing every other week, students entering and leaving the program, and you can always count on mother nature to change things up on you when you least expect it.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Being a catalyst to self-discovery for the students is the most rewarding part of my job. Helping a person rebuild relationships and learn to understand himself and his emotions is incredible. It’s also awesome to live outside in the elements and have everything you need on your back, all year long.
What is the most challenging part?
The most difficult thing for me is when students aren’t making progress. Many of them have colorful stories and are full of heartache and disappointment, and you only want the best for them.
What is one lesson you’ve learned in your job that sticks with you?
Patience. Be patient and kind with people. As difficult as it may be, restrain from judging others. You just never know where someone is coming from. I’ve also learned a lot about myself, and the process of refining my own life has been very rewarding.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge for women today, particularly females in your industry?
I think women have come a long way, and continuing to build on that progress is vital. In my industry, or at least the company I work for, it is refreshing. There are only slightly more male than female instructors, and we are all held to the same expectations and responsibilities. The biggest challenge I have faced in this regard is more of a personal one in which I feel I have to prove to the others around me that even though I’m a small, cute woman, I am every bit as capable as the men I work with.
Who are your role models?
My dad is one of my biggest role models; a man who taught me precisely what courage and integrity are. I also really admire the author and naturalist Michael Pollan.
Is there a quote or mantra that you live by?
“Move and the way will come” has been powerful for me.
What advice do you have for girls who want to be in your industry?
There are plenty of programs out there, all over the country. Search until you find one that’s the right fit for you. Apply, be persistent and positive, and you will not be let down. It isn’t a job for everyone. It is very challenging physically and emotionally, but it is an incredibly rewarding and satisfying job to have. A lot of the people I work with see it as more of a lifestyle than a job.