The program, a graduation requirement, has been a staple at the Athenian School for 30 years, said Upper School Head Dick Bradford. AWE puts students, in their junior year, in either Death Valley or the high Sierra for 26 days, where they are taught survival skills and then left on their own to put those skills into practice.
AWE is a part of the "experiential education" provided at the Athenian School, a private institution with 300 high school students and 150 middle school students. The school was founded by Dyke Brown in 1965 with the concept of educating the whole individual through several "pillars of education." One such pillar is outdoor education, which led to the formation of AWE.
"It's based on the Outward Bound model," said Bradford. He added that it teaches more than just wilderness survival. "It teaches leadership, community service … philosophies that we follow here."
AWE is run by the husband and wife team of Jason Ham and Phoebe Dameron. Ham said putting the students in the middle of the wilderness teaches them not only to be self reliant but that they are capable of more than they realize.
"Our mission is to provide students an opportunity to explore the outer limits of their comfort level," he said. In a classroom setting, the only result of failure is a bad grade, he noted, while AWE offers immediate consequences.
"They come to realize that 'if I don't put up my tent right I'm going to get wet tonight.' They tend to be their most creative when they're put in situations with real consequences," Ham said.
The 44 students are broken up into four groups with two instructors per group. Others do the logistical work of setting up the food and water resupply zones and providing help if a student needs to be taken out due to illness or injury.
In the first phase of the program, the instructors do the majority of the work, teaching the students what they will need to do. A two-day rock climbing course helps students anticipate what they may see while hiking and how to navigate rougher terrains.
During the second phase, Ham said the instructors start to pull back and let the teenagers have more control. This leads into the three-day "Solo Adventure." The teens are spread out and given an area to stay. They each make their own camp and are on their own during this time.
"It gives them a chance to break, reflect and to be away from each other for a little while," Ham said. Being together constantly can lead to fraying tempers, so the solo time also allows for some cooling off.
After three days, the students regroup and go through the remainder of the course without instruction.
"That's called 'Independence,'" Ham explained. "The instructors no longer travel with the students but instead follow about 30 minutes behind them."
The students must navigate to the next camp, set up shelters and cook their own meals. They also need to divide the cooking supplies among their packs to move to the next site.
Ham said it puts their new skills into practice plus allows the students to develop their own group dynamics, dealing with each other without having the instructors to mediate. Ham said it teaches conflict resolution and communication.
"We teach them how to talk to each other and be aware," he said. "You can't take shortcuts in communication because you can't just go in your room and close your door."
The final hurdle comes after the 26-day journey. The students have packed up their gear, made the 10-hour drive back, and now the final exam is an eight-mile run from Osage Park to the Athenian campus.
"That's one of the high points for me," said Ham, "seeing people make it to the run-in. As a director you're looking across the soccer field and you can see how much they changed."
But how do the students feel about the experience?
"I didn't know what to expect," said Alex "AK" Kahn, 17. Fellow student Patrece Carson, 17, said she hadn't heard much about it beyond stories of the cold nights and warm days.
"It did get really cold those first few days," she remembered. "A few mornings I woke up with ice on my sleeping bag."
"My hair froze," added Kahn.
Both agreed that once out in the field they had the time of their lives, even with the low temperatures.
"This was a growing experience," Kahn said, "knowing my limits ... but there was a time when we summited Nelson Range and we're surrounded by wildlife and my teammates and I were eating cheesecake and watching the sunset and I just felt super accomplished. We'd pushed through this and defeated it."
AWE left its mark on the students in a variety of ways, such as showing them a broader world than they see at school.
"I wish I was back out there," Carson said with a smile. "Our instructors showed me a different way to live life."
"It bothered me that we have to keep places like this (Death Valley) … as a preserve," said Kahn. "And we have to go visit that spot, instead of living with it."
The parents say they've seen positive changes after their students return. Susan Kahn said one of the biggest was in the way her son AK communicates with her.
"Right away I noticed he spoke more slowly and thoughtfully if I asked him a question. And went into things in more depth, which is unusual for him. It's like he came back as more of a person."