Ellie Miller: Providing a Home for Others

Ellie Miller
Ellie Miller

While senior Ellie Miller can’t envision her time at Colgate without the Outdoor Education (OE) community now, she didn’t necessarily come to college an outdoors aficionado. Her early appreciation for nature and adventure has proven to take her far, though — to OE’s coveted “trainer” role, in which she helps prepare OE’s new first-years and sophomore trainees to lead trips themselves.  

Miller hails from Wallingford, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia that offered plenty of wooded areas for her family to go on small hikes when she was growing up. She also attended a girl scout camp in the Pocono Mountains, Camp Mosey Wood, for a week out of the summer. This was enough exposure to the outdoors to spark an interest in the Wilderness Adventure (WA) program that Colgate offers to incoming first-year students. Her top choice was a backpacking trip to the West Canada Lakes region, mostly because she liked hiking, but also because she didn’t feel comfortable doing any of the other activities at that point.

“This is super cool, I’ve never camped before, never backpacked before, I’m really nervous, but also really excited I like hiking and want to do it more,” Miller said to herself when embarking on the WA trip. “Then on the [trip], I was talking to my leader and was like, ‘Hey, so, what’s the vibe with OE?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I love it, you should apply.’”

That was all the affirmation Miller needed to apply to be an OE leader that very fall. The experience also led her to the realization that trips outdoors facilitate bonding and connection well further motivation for her to undergo the multiple rounds of interviews built into the application process. 

“My [WA] group vibed really well, so I liked the idea of becoming friends with people in the outdoors, and I felt like I was my most authentic self, and felt others were that way, too. I really liked my leaders, and felt that what they were doing was something I’d love to do.” 

She was actually waitlisted for the position, but eventually got off the list and went all-in with the OE community, recalling that it “took up her life as a freshman.” She admits she was intimidated at first — especially having the perception that the rest of her training class had lots of outdoor experience. 

What Miller found, though, was a tight-knit group of people with varying skill levels to tackle the intensive training year with. For that year, they had to commit to fundamental classes twice a week — for anywhere between two to three hours. Interspersed throughout were weekend trips to cement what they learned, the first of which was at Beattie Reserve, only a few minutes down the road from Colgate.

“[There, you learn] how to put up a tent, tarp, how to set up camp, how to make sure a tree doesn’t fall on you, how to cook meals, how to brush your teeth, and how to respect the environment while you’re there …  the idea is that it all kind of builds on each other.”

This means the ensuing weekend trips presented new, arguably tougher, challenges. A condensed list of them includes a weekend of canoeing from campsite to campsite, one where trainees only navigate with compasses, a winter camping weekend yes, tenting in the snow — and a culminatory May trip where trainees officially transition to leaders. 

During that second semester of training, Miller apprenticed in a “Backcountry Basics” class. 

“My distinct memory is that I was, like, really bad at it,” said Miller. She had the enthusiasm part of leading down, but struggled in her execution of a lesson on laying out tarps properly. 

“I was really focused on all the terms instead of actually, like, teaching them about how to put up a tarp in a successful way …  So that was kind of embarrassing. I use that as a motivational thing now for the trainees.”

Miller reminds her trainees that the path to being a successful leader is never linear. After the apprenticeship, she moved to running WAs with a co-lead.

“It’s funny before you first lead, you’re kind of like, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this, what if someone, like, gouges out their eye for some reason,’ and I’d have to deal with that, but that doesn’t happen, even though I was afraid it was going to. It was also kind of like a ‘I don’t realize what it’s going to feel like until I’m feeling it’ moment, and then you’re like, ‘Okay, got it, like I’m doing it now,’ and then after that, I became pretty confident in my abilities to really do the [leading].”

Of course, now her trainer job entails all of this and more. Along with three other trainers, Miller interviews and hires trainees, teaches the OE training classes twice a week, and leads all the aforementioned training trips. She’s become an expert in ice climbing, cross country skiing and more. The job can also entail answering questions about Colgate, or just life, for the trainees, and offering them support, which doesn’t feel like a job to Miller. She also appreciates sharing with them something not made by humans — nature — and just feeling anew outside. 

“I think I realized that, like, people implicitly look to you when you’re in a position like that and you make an impression on people like whether or not you know that you’re doing that. That’s, like, really powerful, but also scary. It’s like Spider-Man:  ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’” Miller joked. “But, I think it’s really cool to see people growing more into themselves and grow more into Colgate… it’s such a specific place here …  so making kind of a home for people is a really cool thing to me,” she said as tears welled up. 

There’s been more to OE than just the leadership experience, trips, and training for Miller. During her junior year, which was largely defined by COVID-19, she lived in the Loj on Broad Street, OE’s interest house. Living in an eleven-person house was a saving grace during such an isolating time. She also considers some of her closest friends to be in OE. 

In terms of the future, Miller intends to go to graduate school in a year, but for now, has applied to spend a year in France to teach English to children. Applicants are able to rank which French regions they want to teach in, and Miller selected Chamonix, an area nestled in the Alps — ideal for following her passions in the outdoors, although she hasn’t heard official word about her placement yet. 

Right on the theme of reflection on both general Colgate experiences and those in OE, Miller’s some-50-pages long honors art history thesis focused on mirrors. She was even selected to present it in the SUNY New Paltz Undergraduate Art History Symposium in early April. 

“My thesis was on artworks that use mirrors as a primary part of their visuality, or visual plane, and kind of how that says things about spectatorship, and how we as people who are viewing art interact with it.”

When asked what she’ll miss most about Colgate after she graduates, Miller’s intellect shone through in her answer. 

“For one, the people that I’ve met and that I love. I also really love this place walking up the hill I don’t know, I know that’s kind of stupid, but I just have a lot of nostalgic value [attached to it] and I’ll high-key miss taking classes I love school, that’s why I want to go to grad[uate] school, I just think classes are really cool, you know, the pursuit of knowledge!”

While Miller will miss Colgate, her presence in OE, charismatic leadership, and intellectual contributions to campus might be missed even more.