A Former Student’s Wildest Journey

For alumna Juli Rohl, a week in the woods with the late Dr. David Lertzman was (and still is) a mind-shifter that has made her more compassionate, courageous and nimble in everything she does. 

In striving to be “the best geologist (I) could be,” Juli Rohl decided to follow her Bachelor of Science with an MBA. In 2008, she found herself at the Haskayne School of Business, where she met Dr. David Lertzman, PhD — an educator who would not only change her way of thinking, but her entire life.  

“I hadn’t learned anything about accounting and economics in my first degree, so I found all of that fascinating,” says Rohl, BSc’05, MBA’11. “But what really grabbed my interest was this course other students were calling ‘camping for credit.’” 

Familiar with the field school approach while doing her geology degree, Rohl didn’t have the same skeptical reaction as some of her peers. “Endure rugged terrain and extreme conditions? Sleep outside with nothing but a tarp and a sleeping bag? That was definitely for me,” says Rohl, who is just one of hundreds of alumni who, like her, work in the kind of resources industries where decisions are regularly made that impact the land and society. “It turned out to be nothing short of transformative; it opened up my eyes to a world I wanted to participate in.” 

Before heading into the woods with the Lertzman-led Haskayne Wilderness Retreat (BSEN 749), Rohl had to devour an “enormous” booklet of academic readings on sustainability and business. Once at the weeklong retreat in Kananaskis that included instruction from Indigenous elders, she was treated to a program that, she says, “weaves academic learnings of sustainability theory with Indigenous world views — a melding of science with Indigenous culture.” Students are limited in what they can bring beyond a change of clothing, drinking water, sleeping bag, tarp and cord, matches, and a journal for writing their thoughts. Anything that tells time — like a watch, laptop or cellphone — is forbidden.  

The experience includes guided walks through the forest, learning such basic outdoor skills as how to build and start a fire, and some physical challenges that include climbing up to Prairie View Lookout, a 6.6 kilometre hike with an elevation of more than 400 metres.  

At one point, participants are sent out on a solo 24 hours in the forest with no food and only water, a tarp and a rope — what Rohl calls a “kind of vision quest,” embarked upon after a sweat lodge ceremony led by an Indigenous elder. 

“The students are supported in going as far away, or as staying as close to camp, as they feel comfortable with, to push their personal boundaries,” says Rohl. “And, when all that is done, you have to write a paper on your experiences and what you learned.”  

For Rohl, who doesn’t like to reveal everything about what goes on during the retreat — “enough secret sauce to dip your toes in,” she says, since discovery is elemental to the experience — the revelations she had changed her perspective on both business and life.  

She was so impacted, she returned three more times as a volunteer for the program. “I found David’s use of experiential, independent self-study highly effective to reach students,” she says. “He was a master of creating an inviting and compassionate environment for authentic learning and self-exploration.”  

Rohl is not the only one who has been transformed by the course, which has become a legacy for Lertzman, who died in May 2021.  

“Every couple of years, we’d see other students come back and say they wanted to continue the learning they’d started at it,” Rohl says of the retreats which currently are led by Dr. Julian Norris, PhD’10 (MBA students), and Dr. Sarah Brown, PhD’21 (undergrads). “Some people didn’t have that experience and that’s OK too, but there are so many who said it made them look at things differently and impacted how they approached business.”  

Today, Rohl works for a non-profit called Energy Futures Lab, which focuses on collaboration to find middle ground solutions to help move energy transition forward. “It bridges oil and gas, clean tech and different levels of government and academia to find solutions people can buy into and that we can implement,” she says. 

“The wilderness retreat shifted so many things for me — it reframed my western views of the world and it set me on the path to where I am today. I believe that, by applying this long-term view into today’s decisions, I’m changing the world for the better.” 

Read more about David Lertzman, his approach to teaching and the impact that had here.
Fall 2021

arch magazine

Arch is a publication for and about University of Calgary alumni, faculty, students, supporters and curious readers at large. 

This article was first published in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue.