As a college senior in 1989, Nichole Young already knew she wanted a career that incorporated the outdoors and psychology. As an Outdoor Leadership/Recreation major at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the invitation to do practicum training at VOBS felt like hitting the jackpot.
Upon her college graduation, Nichole became a VOBS assistant instructor and then a lead instructor, which she found challenging and exhilarating. “I remember my lead instructors in those early days,” she recalled. “They were amazing pillars of strength who never panicked under adversity—and we’re talking about bears, lightning storms, and general moments of pandemonium.”
Nichole learned to be a coach during her early leadership roles at VOBS. She recalls pivotal moments on course when city kids would be faced with paddling rapids or made to scale a high rock wall. “It was my privilege to help them conquer their fears and discover themselves,” she said.
For herself, Outward Bound pushed Nichole to the edge of her comfort zone many times. She remembers returning home after being in the woods for several months and sitting at the dining room table looking at the food so differently because of where she had been. “I was just so grateful for every single thing on the plate,” she said. “You realize how to be self-sufficient and to have gratitude for everything around you. I carry that with me today. Everything I do comes from a place of gratitude.”
She recalls leading one particularly impactful course with teens working to get back on track with their lives. One young man had a great deal of difficulty on the solo portion of the trip. Nichole could see him from across the lake and perceived he was in great mental distress to the point of possibly needing to leave the course. She decided to paddle to him and work with him to quell his anxiety in a unique way.
Together, they dressed up a log in a life jacket to create a “buddy” to keep him company, similar to “Wilson” the volleyball in the movie Castaway. Nichole also pointed out to him where she was on the lake, and drew an arrow with rocks pointing to that exact spot so he could always see her. “I would stand on the shore and wave at him,” she remembered. “He got through those two days being by himself, and then I watched his confidence over the rest of the course just skyrocket.” Watching the growth of students like him was incredibly gratifying.
After working for VOBS, Nichole earned a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee in Child and Family Studies with a concentration in Recreation Administration. “The resilience that I felt at the end of those VOBS courses was so powerful,” she said. “I felt superhuman going back into school and the real world—like there was nothing I couldn’t do.”
Nichole embarked on a life-long career with Omni Visions, a foster care and adoption agency based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her 27-year career with the agency started with leading wilderness adventures and case management for foster children in the Smoky Mountains and has culminated with an appointment to the role of president and CEO last year.
“Although my career no longer includes wilderness education, it is still a significant part of my life and what brings me joy,” Nichole explained. She keeps inspirational quotes on her office desk, retreats to a lake cabin in the woods with her family on weekends, and has returned to VOBS for at least one alumni course. Both nature and outdoor recreation remain keys to Nichole’s physical and emotional well being. “Everyone who knows me knows that I am happiest in motion,” she said. “To get clarity, I go outdoors,” she added.
Nichole is confident that VOBS changed her life in profound ways. “Outward Bound gave me the belief that not only could I do anything, I SHOULD go out and do more,” she said. “The greatest impact for me was being able to be a mentor—in some cases the only trusted adult—in a kid’s life. If you have an impact on just one kid, there’s magic in that.”
Nichole lives in Nashville with her wife Suzie and their beloved dog and cat. They also share a very special daughter, Katie, who is also an Outward Bound alum.