Student Stories: Nathan Hambel

Nathan Hambel

Major: Associate in Arts

When Nathan Hambel was a child, his father took him on a vacation to Boulder Junction, Wisconsin.

They stayed at a small lake resort built in the 1930s, and their one-room cabin was wedged between the Northwoods and the lake. That trip ignited Hambel’s lifelong passion for the outdoors.

“Right outside the cabin, there was an old aluminum canoe flipped upside down. The first thing I wanted to do was take that canoe out and explore the lake,” he said. “I had never paddled before and my dad was no expert, but we made it across the lake to a narrow inlet with a beaver dam. 

“I remember we had to stop and turn around as we floated over the water lilies. And that’s when we heard a rustling in the brush from ashore. We were silent, waiting in anticipation, thinking a deer was coming to have some water. But it wasn’t a deer, it was a black bear. I will never forget that moment, my heart was pumping. The black bear stopped and looked up at us before disappearing back into the woods. Every summer, until I went off to college, we would go up to the lake. And every year, I fell in love with nature and outdoors more and more.” 

When Hambel came to College of DuPage, he discovered the Field and Experiential Learning program and enrolled in a weekend rock climbing class at Devil’s Lake. He had never climbed before but enjoyed the experience so much that he wanted to try more new things.

Field and Experiential Learning, Study Abroad and Global Education program

“I went caving, took kayaking classes, backcountry cooking, navigation classes and more rock climbing,” he said. “I was having the time of my life. I loved the variety of experiences the program provided, I was able to meet people and learn a lot of new skills, and it developed a passion.

“It was these courses and Instructor Gib Egge who inspired me to pursue a degree and a career in Outdoor Education. Working at the Field Studies Center during my summers helped solidify my career path. I was repairing gear, assisting with trips and I was immersed in the experience.”

While at COD, Hambel received an academic excellence scholarship from the COD Foundation. He was working two jobs to pay for his education, and the scholarship allowed him to participate in Field Studies courses. In fact, instead of graduating earlier than he did, he decide to stay at COD in order to learn more from these classes.

COD’s Field and Experiential Learning is an incredible resource for our community. I think many people know this and that’s why students come back for more and more classes.

After earning an Associate in Arts degree, Hambel transferred to Northland College and finished his bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Education. He then began travelling around the country and found work in Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire, where he led wilderness trips and wilderness therapy.

“I brought inner-city, adjudicated youth out into the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and White Mountains in New Hampshire as an alternative to traditional rehabilitation,” he said. “There were many challenges and because of that, it was a very gratifying experience for me. I would like to hope that I did some good for them. They certainly did a lot for me.”

Hambel eventually returned to Illinois and currently works as a wildlife interpreter with Willowbrook Wildlife Center. This allows him the time to teach and lead Field and Experiential Learning trips with COD, which he has done since 2017. He encourages others to take advantage of the opportunities offered through these trips.

“Meet new people, get outside, and spend your time travelling and experiencing the wide world,” he said. “Find a way to connect with the places you visit, whether it is with the people, the history or the natural beauty. I always ask myself, ‘What makes this place special for me?’ When I can answer that, I take away so much more from my experience.

“Decide what is important to you. Do what you can, when you can do it, because you never know when you will no longer be able to. I think many of us learned that during the pandemic. COD’s Field and Experiential Learning is an incredible resource for our community. I think many people know this and that’s why students come back for more and more classes.”

Hambel is glad that he attended COD, which provided the opportunities and mentorship he needed.

“Part of the reason why I decided to enroll in COD was because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I had some ideas, but I needed direction. COD gave me the time and resources to figure that out. It was because of Field Studies that I fell in love with outdoor recreation and decided that I wanted to find a way to make a career out of it. 

“Now I get to work with wildlife, people and travel the world. I feel like I have purpose and I am happy.”