Calming the Fire

Students travel to Colorado to learn about crisis management and explore the impact of the Waldo Canyon fires one year later.

In a sense, the trip to Colorado Springs was the culmination of Lucas Hernandez ’13’s academic career. Hernandez, who graduated last month, was a student coordinator of the Rollins Immersion Program, which takes students to locations all over the country (and beyond) for service work.

“I graduated that Sunday, and we left Monday morning,” he says. “This was a capstone for me.”

This trip, however, wasn’t his idea. Instead it came from David Lord ’69 ’71MBA, the current chairman of Rollins’ board of trustees, who lives in Colorado. From his days as a student, Lord has always been deeply intertwined with campus activities, and in prior years, both as a philanthropist and alumni, he came to “strongly and passionately believe” in the campus’ immersion program, but he’d never before had the chance to organize such a trip himself. Recently retired from his longtime work as a higher education administrator, Lord decided that now was the time.

“It was a fabulous chance to spend the week with students,” he says.

His proposal was to have 14 students fly out to Waldo Canyon, just outside of Colorado Springs, where in summer 2012 a wildfire had wreaked havoc on the community, destroying 346 homes—the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. There, they would learn about crisis management.

Lord’s reasoning for this particular trip was twofold: “One, I figured it was something you could use to bring students together and let students see different perspectives. Two, today’s college students are probably going to see some sort of crisis in their community. This would be the kind of real-world experience.”

The Newtown and Aurora massacres. Hurricane Sandy. The Boston Marathon bombing. The Moore, Oklahoma, tornado. September 11, 2001. These horrors are all too common, and in Lord’s thinking, students should be ever ready to deal with the aftermath of crisis.

“For me, every community goes through a crisis,” Hernandez says. His mission in Colorado was “understanding how the community rebounded, see[ing] how they’re able to pull that all together, and [recovering] what they lost.”

As soon as the Rollins group flew into Denver and then drove to Colorado Springs, they toured the neighborhood most devastated by the wildfire. Over the next few days, they met with students at Colorado College—where Lord used to work—affected by the blaze, as well as county officials, the fire marshall, and members of a nonprofit called Colorado Springs Together, which is acting as a sort of hub for those impacted by the fire. They also got their hands dirty, seeding the hillside of the Flying W Ranch and doing flood mitigation on mountain passes, spoke with a woman who lost her home, toured the U.S. Air Force Academy with the school’s chief diversity officer (a Rollins alum), and went to a Colorado Rockies baseball game (after meeting a team executive who is also a Rollins alum).

“We just tried to encompass the four sectors [of immersion]—nonprofit, public, private, and individuals,” Hernandez says. “We tried to develop the leadership of the students as well.”

Hernandez’s takeaway from this, his final immersion trip, is that he should work “to be a more active citizen in my community.”

“I heard a lot of them say this was a life-changing event for them,” Lord adds. “Each of them picked up some ideas for leadership. I think they really got an understanding of what happens in a community.”