When Pitzer College announced that it would be completely remote for the fall semester, transfer student Tatiana Wells PZ ’23 was not thrilled about the prospect of starting a new school online. She decided to defer and hopefully participate in a semester-long trip, until the coronavirus pandemic prevented the trip from running.
“The semester I planned all came crashing down,” Wells said. “I had to rescind my deferral, and I was like, this is insane. I’d had so many different plans, but they all kept just falling apart.”
That is, until a friend of Wells found A Place Beyond on Twitter. A startup that seeks to provide an in-person, community-focused academic experience for college students in the wilderness, APB rents out and converts campgrounds into college campuses where students from around the country can apply to learn and live for the semester.
Now almost two months into her stay at APB’s Bradshaw Mountains campus on a converted national forest campsite in Arizona as part of the program’s first cohort, Wells likens her experience to “a summer camp for college kids, like you’re at summer camp but you’re also doing school.”
“We all get up, have breakfast and then you have the whole day to do work or go bouldering or go mountain biking.” —Tatiana Wells PZ ’23
APB participants are enrolled full-time at their respective universities but pay APB for room and board. Participants are tested for COVID-19 weekly and were quarantined upon arrival. Together, they live in cabins, eat meals together and are free to explore around the converted campground when they are not doing work.
“Everybody goes to different colleges, which I wasn’t sure about how that would work out, but honestly, it’s not that different from having a different major than your friend at the same school,” Wells said. “We all get up, have breakfast and then you have the whole day to do work or go bouldering or go mountain biking. Kids take trips to the lake and go cliff jumping; we can cook, we do movie nights. If you want to play ultimate frisbee, you put it in the Slack and get a team together, because someone is always down to hang out. If you need a quiet place to work, the entire campus has really good WiFi, and it’s really nice to be outside.”
With so much freedom in the day and the reality that classes for all participants are completely online, there may be the fear that schoolwork would lose priority. However, Wells explained that just being around other students, regardless of which college they attend, makes the remote semester much more rewarding.
“At least when I was starting Pitzer as a transfer, I was really anxious because I didn’t have any college students sitting next to me saying, ‘No, we all have work. The grind is normal; don’t worry about it,’” Wells said. “But now at APB, I feel like my anxiety has dropped so much because I’m able to look around and be like, ‘No, I’m doing good work and I’m keeping up.’”
Participants are also paired with mentors, who are paid staff members typically in their 20s, to monitor their academic success and overall program experience. In addition to these check-ins, mentors run optional workshops, activities and expeditions throughout the semester.
In addition to increased ease around schoolwork, APB has given Wells a sense of normalcy and made her feel extremely lucky in a time where little feels normal.
“[APB] let me feel like I was a college student for a little bit longer and made it so that I could have something to ground me,” Wells said. “I get really in my head if I spend too much time by myself, and I think that would be counterproductive to my education and make everything a lot more difficult and anxiety-inducing. I hear this when my classes have check-ins and these stories from kids at the Claremont Colleges are just like, ‘Yeah, everything is really hard right now and I just don’t really know how to move forward and I’m really overwhelmed with schoolwork.’”
In the future, Wells shared that APB is hoping to offer this communal living experience at other campuses across the United States, with hopeful spring locations in the California Redwoods and the San Bernardino National Forest. As the start-up expands, increasing accessibility is top of mind for current program participants.
“There is some pressure from the students here right now to work harder to make sure that APB is accessible because it’s expensive and it’s supposed to be the amount that you would pay on room and board at your school, and instead of paying for that, you pay to be here,” Wells said. “Right now, it’s just looking like a lot of fundraising to make sure that students who need financial aid to be here can come … I’m having a great time, but all of us are very aware that we are privileged like no other people in the country right now.”
Looking forward to the spring, Wells isn’t sure what’s ahead of her, whether it’s staying at APB, taking a gap semester, or ideally, moving on campus at Pitzer. She is nonetheless grateful for her experience this semester and cognizant that without the pandemic, it would have never existed.
“There’s nothing I want more than to be able to go to Pitzer in person in the spring and start that next part of my life,” Wells said. “COVID is what is going to change everything. But APB showed me that there is always — even if it’s not a perfect solution — something that you can do in a tough situation, because this really just came out of the pandemic.”