Member Spotlight: Shana

Member Spotlight,

Meet Shana Wills!

shana wShana (she/her/hers) grew up in Chicago, and "worked all over war-torn sub-Saharan Africa before returning to Chicago". Shana is now the Executive Director/Founder at Refugee Education & Adventure Challenge (REACH) – focusing on experiential learning / outdoor education / adventure sports / leadership development / refugee youth; and is a Part-Time Faculty Member at DePaul University in forced migration studies / experiential learning / globalization / intercultural communication. She is also the mom of a teenage boy!

Tell us a bit about what you do at your organization. 
As the Executive Director of REACH, I coordinate and implement all outdoor learning and leadership activities with our participants; conduct outreach and nurture partnerships with a variety of institutions and field experts; recruit and train volunteers; recruit and register refugee youth participants; attend multiple issue-based meetings with local, state and national refugee service and advocacy coalitions; manage financial and general operations; conduct prospect research, donor outreach, and grant-writing; and develop or enhance new programming and curricula in collaboration with our Peer Mentors (youth leaders) and key partners.

An average day consists of responding to dozens of emails, planning REACH activities or preparing for a session (packing gear, food, lesson plans, agendas, first aid kit; checking in on bus rental; fielding calls and texts from dozens of youth or their parents and interpreters; driving to meeting point); leading a session (delegating tasks to staff, adult volunteers and Peer Mentors, touching base with partner agency staff - if applicable; facilitating reflection circles and outdoor learning adventures; making sure everyone is in the "learning zone;" touching base with parents on ETAs; getting everyone home safely); unpacking after a session; entering session outcomes into a daily report; tracking expenses; responding to more emails; preparing a meal for me and my 16-year old son; and maybe chill out before bed.

As a Part-Time Faculty Member at DePaul, I am also tasked with developing course syllabi; designing lectures and/or classroom activities; corresponding with undergraduate or graduate students via Zoom or email; delivering lectures and facilitating classroom discussions; coaching/guiding students; and grading.
As a single Mom, I manage our household, delegate tasks to my son, mentor/coach/advise my son on his schoolwork and social emotional work, try to inspire continued curiosity about the world and a sense of social justice, agency and service, and adapt/revise/administer the rules of the house as best I can to meet the needs of our family.

In a nutshell, I see my work as being a combination of 1) innovating, 2) coaching/mentoring, 3) networking, and 4) managing operations.
Tell us more about yourself! 
I am the Executive Director and Founder of Refugee Education & Adventure Challenge (REACH), a Chicago-based nonprofit that introduces refugee youth and their families to experiential learning opportunities focused on STEAM education and adventure sports. I'm also an independent consultant for local and global grassroots refugee-led organizations, and a part-time faculty member at DePaul University, teaching undergrad and graduate courses on globalization, forced migration, experiential learning, and social justice. I have more than 30 years’ experience researching and addressing systemic policies that impact displacement across the globe. I first started studying critical pedagogy while implementing projects in war-torn Africa. I have conducted field research and established projects affecting vulnerable populations, including child soldiers, displaced children, landmine victims, warehoused refugees, and marginalized communities in Angola, Colombia, Eritrea, Haiti, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania. In 2016, inspired by the transformative nature of popular education, I launched REACH.

As a kid, my family went on numerous long road trips across the country, first in a bright yellow psychedelic van and later in a baby blue Cadillac sedan. We often had no planned destination, but we spent countless weeks camping under the stars and visiting National Parks or other gorgeous American vistas. Back then, I roamed freely, exploring the outdoors with a young and curious mind. As a highschooler, I naturally became fascinated with transcendentalism and the readings of Thoreau and Emerson. My rebel spirit eventually led me to art school and Chicago's vibrant alternative subculture where I engaged in experiential art performances that explored social, political and cultural issues. Brewing was a deep interest in letting go of societal trappings and doing good in the world. I ended up joining a Danish humanitarian organization that was assisting a group of southern African countries called The Frontline States - a movement to defeat Apartheid and implement a democratic transition in South Africa. I was sent to work in Angola in the midst of its most heated civil conflict. Coincidentally, I was one of the only Americans living there at the time, with the exception of covert operatives. My job was to develop experiential learning activities and an accelerated academic curriculum for displaced children who had fled their homes due to the war. I eventually started my own school for displaced Angolan children modeled after the Danish and Brazilian folk school pedagogies.

While I spent more than a decade working on and off in Africa, my home-base was always Chicago. Any free time was spent backcountry camping across the country, volunteering with various advocacy campaigns, and studying for a new degree within an innovative university program that utilized a competence-based experiential learning methodology to demonstrate knowledge and understanding. The individualized program at DePaul University's School for New Learning helped me to tie all of the loose ends of my lifelong learning experiences into one cohesive portfolio. It was transformative. After continuing on to grad school and completing more work in Africa, I took two new jobs in Chicago that set me on the pathway to where I am today. I was first invited to return to DePaul as a parttime faculty member where I've had the pleasure of teaching thousands of students at both the former School for New Learning and the Refugee & Forced Migration Studies graduate program for 20 years. I also became the director at a large refugee and immigrant center where my team and I resettled thousands of newcomers from war-torn areas like Burma, Burundi, Colombia, Kosovo, Liberia, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Southern Sudan. Over the years, I worked several other jobs in this field, and came to recognize a concerning gap in specialized services to address the needs of newcomer youth, particularly refugee adolescents. In Chicago, similar to other major urban areas, integration can be hindered by gang violence, bullying, and discrimination. While it took a few years for me to pull together the key components, resources, and people to launch REACH, the organization’s foundation is essentially a culmination of my professional and personal learning experiences and social networks.

What I love about this work is bearing witness to the transformative learning that takes place with our incredible REACH youth and their family members as well as my students at DePaul. Two separate work environments with very fulfilling outcomes. How cool is that?
What excites you when you think about the future of Experiential Education?
In the past several years, I've been excited about the ways in which the concept of neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to adjust to damage or new experiences - has begun to reach mainstream society. I am passionate about finding and creating effective learning experiences that leverage this potential of our brain cells to change according to our actions and behaviors. I also want to help learners become more aware of their brain health and the habits they want to cultivate or modify to enhance their own well-being. This is essential for experiential learning.

I also think that experiential education, especially when combined with critical pedagogy, can be a powerful tool for addressing the urgent challenges of our time, such as social and environmental justice. I am inspired by the idea of nurturing "planetary citizens", as coined by Paulo Freire, who are aware of their interconnectedness and solidarity with all living beings and the planet. I hope we can continue to promote the value of cultivating a "curious" brain, with its daydreaming pathways, that pushes learners to seek out novelty and challenges, to explore, and to open up to possibilities while also maintaining a state of mind that builds patterns, seeks causes, and makes meaning. One way to foster this kind of awareness is to create learning environments that encourage learners to make connections between their own experiences and the broader contexts and issues they encounter. By making connections, learners can deepen their understanding, broaden their perspectives, and develop empathy and critical thinking skills.

I am particularly excited to encourage and assist more organizations and institutions to engage refugees and other newcomer populations in these transformative learning endeavors. I believe that these learning experiences embody the values of democratic citizenship and multiculturalism, as they allow newcomers to access different places and people, and to contribute their own unique knowledge and assets. These are the kinds of learning spaces that I want to promote and facilitate in my world and I hope they are included in the future of Experiential Education.
Who or what inspires you?
I am consistently blown away by the profundity of refugee youths' thoughts and feelings after they are invited into spaces of learning and adventure that they never anticipated experiencing in their lifetimes. I am smitten by their eloquent understanding of the importance of nature, exploration, stewardship, adventure as well as critical reflection and thinking. I am inspired by their ability to straddle two or more cultures, speak multiple languages, and challenge themselves to continue to step out of their comfort zones for the sake of learning and self-growth. I am thrilled when they introduce their parents, siblings, and extended family members or friends to outdoor activities like camping, kayaking, hiking, birdwatching, and river clean-ups or simply take them to green spaces where they can picnic and play simple icebreaker games that they learned from REACH. I see the future in them (and my amazing son who has tagged along with me at all REACH activities since the age of 9), and I am giddy with anticipation of what they can (will) do to transform the world around them.
In your free time, we can probably find you:
Ha! What free time? Let's see, in the next few weeks of intermittent free time, I plan on going for a cold paddle with friends on the Chicago River or Lake Michigan, hitting the single track mountain bike trails in my area, and chilling out with a morning coffee and newspaper.
How long have you been involved with AEE?
I've known about AEE and utilized some of its resources for the last 15 years, but I only recently joined AEE in 2020. Initially, I followed AEE because I develop and teach experiential learning courses at the university level, and I appreciate the dynamic articles about the topic published in the AEE's Journal of Experiential Education. However, I finally became a member in order to find another community of learning that would help me to strategize innovative programs for REACH and build upon my own professional growth.
What is the most rewarding part about being a Member of AEE?
I'm still a rather new member, but I have really enjoyed the two annual conferences that I’ve attended and the variety of people and workshops. Of course, my membership began during the pandemic, so while it's nice to engage virtually, I am hoping to become more involved and meet more people now that we can safely gather in person more frequently. I imagine building more social networks with creative and motivated AEE members will be very rewarding!
Favorite Moment at AEE?
One thing I recall is jumping in my seat with excitement while participating in AEE member Chad Thatcher's 2020 workshop on serendipity. He was speaking my language and I felt that kind of elation one feels when ideas in one's mind come to life through another person's words or actions. During that workshop, I spent time in small breakout groups with equally excited participants from France, Israel, middle America and the west coast. It was just a dynamic moment for me where we all shared our thoughts, ideas, and lived experiences of practicing a sagacious mindset and seizing moments of serendipity. At the subsequent annual AEE conference, I co-presented at a workshop with two of my refugee colleagues from REACH. Afterwards, a workshop attendant and his wife contacted me, inviting REACH to bring our Peer Mentors (youth leaders) on a road to visit their camp in Idaho. While we couldn’t make it all the way to Idaho, we did take the kids camping and hiking in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks later that year!
Connect with Shana:
I welcome other AEE members to reach out to me, to share their thoughts and ideas with me, or to learn more about the work we do at Refugee Education & Adventure Challenge (REACH). We eagerly invest in partnerships and opportunities to collaborate. And I’m a huge proponent of the power of networking! 

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