Meet our Adventure Leader Paul!
“Sometimes the clearest way through the universe is through a dense forest.”
Here at TLA we believe part of what makes our educational journeys so special is our awesome adventure leaders. So, in this article we want to shine a light on our resident Bear Grylls and leader extraordinaire Paul Ronan. Paul is originally from the US but has been based in China for over 10 years, where he oversees our educational programs for international schools based there. We sit down to find out more about this true adventurer.
Hi Paul, tell us first how you got into outdoor education?
Getting into outdoor education was a fluke for me. I remember always looking forward to going to summer camp as a kid. It was a place I could reinvent myself and be whomever I wanted to be. We did the normal camp things like singing songs, canoeing, archery etc., but it was the people and the counselors who always kept me wanting to go back. Every time I returned from camp, I felt like I had grown tremendously in such a short period.
It was in college when I realized it was something I wanted to pursue further. There was a weeklong canoe expedition where we would go out, unsupported, with a group of 9 and travel into the wilderness. It was hard, it rained, I saw the northern lights, and I got cold, but I felt free. This trip was the moment I knew I wanted to get more of these experiences and find even remoter places to challenge myself.
You have been on some amazing trips and experiences in the past please share us a highlight!
Probably the most notable trip I’ve been on was a walk from Xi’an, China across the Silk Road to the Caspian Sea. We intended to walk to Istanbul, but Covid prevented us from making it any further. We walked over 9,000 kilometers across 5 countries over 2 years camping most of the way. We documented our journey along the way and can be explored on www.silkwalkexpedition.com
Our mission was to walk from one symbolic end of the Silk Road to another weaving together a story of people, places, and purpose. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but hopefully not the hardest thing I will ever do.
Where would you say is your favourite China travel destination?
If I had to bring someone to one place in all of China, it would have to be Yangshuo. The clean rivers, the epic mountains, and the never-ending mysteries of “what’s behind that next peak” keep me coming back and make this place so alive.
Can you tell us your favourite student/leader experience?
Some of my best experiences are when I see students take that leap of faith and get rewarded for it. When they try something new and realise the world is open to so many more possibilities and opportunities than they had previously thought. One specific experience that I always look forward to is making a water filter out of the natural environment. Taking dirty gray water and making it clean and safe to drink can blow kids’ minds.
Tell us your views on safety.
To me, safety is not a goal, but an expectation. I would never put myself or anyone else in an unsafe place. This is balanced with the fact that you need risk-taking for any “leap of faith” to have a payoff. My goal is to create spaces where students take risks and reap the rewards of those risks in a controlled and protected environment.
Rock climbing is a perfect example of this. When we go rock climbing, we use helmets, proper ropes, belay devices, and hardware to make sure that all the potential hazards that come with rock climbing are mitigated. The actual risk of you getting hurt rock climbing is close to zero, but the perceived risk of actual climbing is still there. Getting to the top is still an accomplishment that has a reward for those who take that “leap of faith”.
Finally, why do you think outdoor education is important?
I think the outdoor environment provides students and teachers a space in which they can interact with the world that is not available in the classroom. Without these experiences, I think there are major intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that can go unlearned. By going on these outdoor programs, I think it makes better people and with better people, we’ll get a better world. I also believe that showing and educating students about the natural environment fosters a bit of a protection ethic. If we go somewhere that has a pristine swimming location, you’ll not want to see that destroyed in the future. Creating stewards of our lands is an important aspect of outdoor education.