Adrian Popa, Organizational Learning: The Mountaineering Course

Adrian Popa knows about hardiness. Growing up, Popa watched his parents cope with the oppression of communist-ruled Romania. The family eventually immigrated to the United States and faced the challenges of starting over in an unfamiliar culture. When Popa became an undergraduate at UC Irvine, he gravitated toward psychology because he wanted to understand more clearly the adversity his family experienced and how it may lead to resilience.

Today, Popa teaches in Gonzaga’s graduate organizational leadership program. Hardiness as a pathway towards resiliency has become one of his signature topics of research and teaching. The past two summers he has taught a course called “Leadership and Hardiness,” in which students investigate the intersections between physical and emotional stress, adversity, and the role of leadership in developing personal and organizational hardiness.

The course description includes the unusual phrase “Mt. Adams residency required.” In keeping with Ignatian pedagogy, Popa wants his students to experience and act on what they learn. The course culminates in a two-day climb up Mt. Adams. At 12,280 feet, it is the second highest peak in Washington. The prospect of the climb prompts many students to adopt a new lifestyle, requiring a healthy diet, exercise, social support, and introspective meditations through blogging.

Clearly, the course engages mind, body and spirit in a way that few classes do. In the twelve weeks preceding the trek, the class studies hardiness, reading Viktor Frankl’s work including the classic “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which records his struggle to find meaning in his existence at Auschwitz. As they attempt the summit, many students reflect on Frankl’s experience, learning that it is not the physical struggle that is the most difficult but the mental and spiritual journey.

“Frankl helps them understand the theoretical and pragmatic elements of existentialism and that much depth and growth is found in embracing adversity. Students transition to looking inwardly at their own life and how they construct meaning from the adversity they experience in person and organizational life,” Popa said. Much of the course is conducted online with students spread across the country. For one weekend, these far-flung individuals leave their everyday lives and take on the challenge of doing something entirely new together. They are forced to depend on their team, physically and emotionally. Many report later that they could not have made it to the summit of Mt. Adams without the support and encouragement of their classmates.

For Popa, the class is a way to put people into a situation where they are forced out of their comfort zone. “We all perform well when we are well rested and well fed,” he said. “But when we remove any of these comforts, and find ourselves in a state of adversity life seems to teach us new lessons worth listening to. Sometimes students have gotten very frustrated, angry, and highly emotional on the mountain, but they later say that it is quite life-impacting. It’s just you and your thoughts, your anger, your fears, your hope and your future perhaps. You hear yourself and see yourself quite vividly when you experience the solitude of wilderness and humbling feat of climbing a mountain. We all leave the course learning how our personal journey continues to give meaning to the summit.”

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