Imagine waking up at 10:30 p.m. in rural southwestern Colorado and being told you have to save four people stuck in a 500-meter canyon. And you have only 90 minutes.

For rescue teams all over the nation, this is a grim reality. For Union College’s international rescue and relief students, this is one of many scenarios they experience during their five-week summer training in western Colorado—a requirement for everyone in the program. Through the use of Rescue 3 International curriculum, the goal is to help students develop skills for use in their future callings.

“My plan is to be a paramedic and eventually a firefighter,” said Janae Schumacher, a senior from North Dakota. “After completing this program I realized I love swift water rescue and want to include this in my future career as well.”

Schumacher is one of five teaching assistants who, having already completed the summer program, recertified and went back this summer to help six instructors teach 22 students what it means to be a part of a rescue team.

The first week of training begins the week after graduation and focuses on wilderness survival skills. Students learn the basics of shelter building, entrapping, starting fires, and even spend 72 hours surviving solo in the wilderness.

They then spend a week on technical rope rescue. Many of the rescue scenarios take place at night just as they would in real life.

The next two weeks focus on swift water rescue and flood water management—first, with the basics of hydrology and safer rapids—then, with advanced training and larger rapids.

In the final week of summer training, the students put all their new skills to work, adding GPS, compass, mapping and tracking training, to complete several search and rescue scenarios in the wilderness.

“I could walk into any fire, police or technical rescue team and know I can contribute more than handing out warm blankets,” said Arizona native and sophomore Cameron Pottle. “The chance to go through this hands-on curriculum is invaluable.”

Intense training = ready for anything

Pottle actually dreaded the program before starting, wary of its reputation for being intense and exhausting. What changed his mind, though, were the staff.

“Their encouragement,” he said, “helped me realize they wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle. They always look out for us.”

For example, one student panicked when working a swift water rescue scenario. Despite being trained only a few hours before, the situation overwhelmed him. Schumacher decided to step in.

“We sat together. I gave him something to eat and we went over how to better work the water with certain angles,” she said.

Those few minutes convinced him he could try again. “I feel this program has enhanced my leadership skills. I now know more how to work with people and meet them where they are,” she said.

Schumacher added that “this will help me as a paramedic and firefighter because they need to be assertive and lead when necessary.”

Pottle says he also realized during the program how valuable conflict resolution will be for his calling. “I had a teammate I didn’t get along with,” he explained. “But I knew I couldn’t let this affect how we saved lives.”

With staff encouragement and discussion, the two became good friends by the third week.

“I know as a physician assistant I may have problems with my coworkers, but we need to work through them to be effective,” he said. Pottle chose to be a PA because of his desire to help others.

He knows Union’s hands-on training like this summer program gives him unique experiences before he ever steps foot in a hospital.

According to Schumacher, team-building is one of the main skills learned during the summer program. “I saw many who didn’t trust their teammates to rescue them at first, but by the end those same people were their top choice,” she said.

When these students return in the fall, they’ll have a bond not many other programs experience. “After going through the training I feel I have a place I belong,” shared Pottle. “I definitely see myself more able to stick with IRR now.”

Confident in their calling

Both Schumacher and Pottle recalled the Escape to God portion of the program as shaping their growth. Twice, toward the beginning and the end of the program, all staff and students take a few hours to explore and just spend time with God.

“We want to encourage students to know that even in the busyness they can find quiet,” said Schumacher. At the end, the group comes together and shares their experiences. Many come to decisions on calling, mission work and personal conflicts.

Pottle, like many, witnessed a huge difference in his Escape to God experience from the beginning to the end. “I felt I could talk to God more, and that He was with me on this trip,” he shared. “I feel sure in my calling after growing this summer.”

Schumacher agreed. “The summer program changes you forever,” she said. “You will know skills few know. You become part of a community that comes with rescue. No matter what calling you follow after this, you are now a rescuer. You learn skills for a lifetime of adventure.”

Practicing the real thing

When Hurricane Harvey swamped coastal southeast Texas in September 2017, a team of Union students spent a week in Port Arthur and Beaumont helping residents clean out their homes.

Experience their adventure through a documentary created by senior Caleb Haakenson at

Emily Roque Cisneros is a recent Union graduate and freelance photographer and writer who lives with her pastor-husband in Cedaredge, Colorado. @emylynncreations