UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
Name: Nicole Hanninen
Company: Adventure Program Staff, Frost Valley YMCA
Hometown: Ashland, Wis.
Major: Conservation, Outdoor Education Minor
Nicole Hanninen is proof that one small decision can change your life.
“I came into college thinking I wanted to be an English major. I thought that all through high school and then a year here at River Falls changed my entire path,” she recalls.
Nicole, a conservation major and outdoor education minor, from Ashland, Wis., started her education at UW-River Falls as an English major, but chose to take an environmental course as an elective. Paul Shirilla, associate professor in the Health and Human Performance Department, visited the class and sparked a new path for Nicole.
“He came in and talked about outdoor education. That’s what triggered me to switch my entire major to conservation from English. Then I tacked on the outdoor education minor,” she explains. “Paul was the one who pushed me to focus on working with kids. He changed my whole outlook on what I wanted to do. He made me realize that I am meant to work with kids.”
Taking classes for her outdoor education minor not only changed Nicole’s perspective, but landed her a job. After graduation, she will be heading to Claryville, N.Y., to work as a member of the Adventure Program staff at Frost Valley YMCA.
“My minor got us connected. We went to the Twin Cities in November and attended a conference. I networked there,” she says. “Through my minor, I worked at Camp St. Croix last summer. I started looking a Y camps and outdoor ed programs all over the country and discovered that my new boss had attended the same conference. That connection really helped me end up with my new job and my minor is what led to that connection.”
In her new role, Nicole will be working with children as young as seven and will lead backpack and service learning trips up and down the east coast.
“His [Paul’s] classes made me realize that I didn’t want to go the DNR or the government route. I want to work with kids and the outdoors,” she says. “But my experience at River Falls also made me realize that it’s not crazy to do what I want to do.”
Her experience at UW-River Falls hasn’t just solidified her choice of career path, but prepared her exceptionally well for the challenge.
“All of my courses have set me up well for this job. We’ve done backpacking trips. I’ve learned everything from how to pack gear properly to why people are the way they are in an adventure setting,” Nicole explains. “My major courses in conservation have given me background knowledge for the things I will need to know, too.”
Outdoor education classes have been the highlight of her UW-River Falls experience. The unique approach to learning has been valuable to Nicole and it’s clear she carries those experiences with her.
“PED 201 and 202 are classes I will never forget. It’s the same people throughout the two courses. We went on backpacking and rock climbing and skiing trips. We formed a family. You do activities to learn to trust each other. Those are the people that you really miss at the end of the semester. When you’re stuck in a small three-person tent with two other people, you really have to trust them. You get to see people expanding and trying new things and you get to push yourself. You’re not learning in a classroom sitting down,” she says.
Nicole knows the value of her UW-River Falls education extends beyond the classroom, beyond tents and backpacking trips.
“UW-River Falls teaches students that anything you want to do is possible. We are a small campus but we have huge connections. We send kids to Antarctica. River Falls has taught me that you can’t be scared to go after what you want. You have to push yourself and strive because no one’s going to do it for you,” Nicole says. “Be open-minded when walking into a situation because you might not have the same thought process when you come out the other side. Take those courses and do those things that scare you because that’s where you’re going to grow and that’s where you’re going to figure out who you really are.”
“I was an English major who signed up to take one course that changed my whole life,” Nicole explained. “In the end, it’s your dream and you’re the one that’s going to tie it all together.”