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Forging a Leadership Path

Harnessing the knowledge he gained from a trio of academic programs at SUNY Potsdam,  Riley Notarthomas ’23 is using his interdisciplinary education to help others and be a leader in the wilderness.

The SUNY Potsdam alumnus, who graduated with a double major in environmental studies and psychology and a minor in wilderness education, has interwoven his fields of study to make a positive impact on struggling youth in Vermont. After receiving his degree in May of 2023, Notarthomas was hired as a wilderness therapy guide for the True North Wilderness Program, which offers a hands-on wilderness immersion program for struggling adolescents and young adults.

“It’s a lot of people skills, a lot of backcountry hard skills, but then the therapist is there for the deeper emotional work. Being in an environment where others can express themselves, be vulnerable, learn to be accountable for themselves, and be able to facilitate that has been very rewarding."

Riley Notarthomas '23

Notarthomas leads groups of up to seven students on multi-day backpacking trips throughout the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, working on a variety of skills like shelter creation, bow drilling, tree identification and helping them gain an appreciation for the environment. His students learn to work together as they bushwhack through remote regions of Vermont, relying on each other, as Notarthomas supports both their emotional and physical journey.

“They’re trying to understand themselves and maybe their coping strategies are maladaptive, and they don’t really know how to interact with the world, but these kids just want to understand themselves and have love and attention,” Notarthomas explained.

“The program gives them a space to work on themselves and work with others. It forces them to work as a team to make it through the days—in a similar way to how we do it in SUNY Potsdam’s wilderness education program, focusing on a lot of the same backcountry living and leadership skills.”

In the field, he leans on his education—insight from his psychology professors, leadership skills from the wilderness education program, and knowledge from his environmental studies degree—three academic paths that merge perfectly in the woods while working with a range of personalities. His psychology degree now plays a role in everything he does in the wilderness. “What I liked about the psychology department at SUNY Potsdam was that it put a lot of names to things that I had noticed, but had not so much understood. The classroom space for that was great, but I think as far as application goes, I was able to apply those concepts in the wilderness education minor, in a space that is all psychology, it's all mental, whether that was just pushing through the elements, developing a leadership style, or working with a group,” he said.

Notarthomas draws connections between his students and the challenges he faced in his youth as he dealt with family estrangement issues and relatives closing themselves off from the rest of the family. “On a human level to get to relate to younger kids who are coming from similar struggles to mine at home and far beyond, is something that is very rewarding as well. Sometimes you need a different space to be able to reflect upon that and I think the outdoors provide a great reflection point for that,” he said.

As a student at SUNY Potsdam, Notarthomas landed on the President’s or Dean’s List every semester and graduated magna cum laude. With a calm and collected disposition, and an eloquence with words far beyond his years, he was not only offered a job at True North, but also at his alma mater, in the same wilderness education program in which he received his training.

The day after commencement, he began his new leadership role by shadowing Adam Wheeler on a Leadership II (advanced backpacking) course, the same one he had taken with Wheeler a year earlier. Then later in the summer of 2023, Notarthomas was tasked with leading the 12-day Leadership I backpacking course through the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area in the Adirondacks. “That was a great experience because it felt like a natural stepping-stone from first being introduced to the wilderness education minor as a student, then slowly I'm assisting, and then I'm assisting as an internship, and then I get to lead one as a graduate,” he said.

 This fall, he has been splitting his time between Vermont and Potsdam. When he’s not working as a wilderness therapy guide, he has been teaching an introduction to hiking course at the College which focuses on Leave No Trace principles, how to plan and prepare a hike, safety protocols, and learning how to respect the environment. This winter he will be taking a break from True North to work as a ski instructor at Titus Mountain, before teaching hiking 101 again in the Spring of 2024.

As he looks to the future, he’s considering graduate school for psychology, while wilderness education and environment studies also remain strong long-term career options for him. As he keeps building on his experiences from SUNY Potsdam he thinks back on his impactful relationships with his professors. “Dr. Kate Cleary was great. She got me into a lot of classes and helped me out. With environmental studies, the relationship between humans and their environment, at that basic level, is totally relevant,” he said. “I want to have my foot in the door there because it's the future, and anything could happen for me with job opportunities to get more involved in sustainability and the future of the planet and natural resources. Currently, I’m just seeing where the wind takes me.”

Article by Jason Hunter