Originally written by Chuck Steenburgh in 2013.
Regular readers of the National News know that our students and graduates provide daily examples of ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things. It’s an important part of National College and American National University’s missions to prepare students for a full life, in which one is constantly expanding his or her horizons. President Frank Longaker, who began his “climb” at National College 41 years ago as an instructor, proved the point in spectacular fashion earlier this year, when at the age of 66 he completed an eight-day trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
At 19,342 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent. Accompanied by 69-year-old Patrick Kennard, a director of institutional planning for National College, President Longaker traveled to the East African nation of Tanzania to accomplish this feat. A lifelong athlete who has competed in triathlons, adventure races, and other endurance sports, President Longaker felt inspired to complete the ascent. By no means a mountain climber, President Longaker was enticed by the climb’s difficulty, which, while strenuous, did not require technical climbing skills.
The climb itself took eight days—six days up, two down—and the group was comprised of 14 people, mostly from the United States, plus about 35 Tanzanian porters and guides. One of the biggest challenges of the climb was the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The first few days of the climb saw the group gradually ascend to 15,000 feet above sea level, where they spent several days traversing the mountain to different camps on the route to the summit. “At that altitude, we were not carrying oxygen, so everyone was vulnerable to altitude sickness,” President Longaker stated. The group learned breathing techniques suited for high altitude activities and took pains to avoid over-exertion.
On the day of the summit climb, the group had a light supper and early turn-in, to awake at 11 PM local time. “We climbed all night,” related President Longaker. “We used headlamps, and just went one foot in front of the other.” The last 4,000 feet, while steep, was largely a zig-zag route of switchback trails.
As the group neared the summit, the sun began to rise in the eastern sky, giving them a dramatic view of the surrounding countryside. “You almost want to stop and watch the sunrise, but you’re torn by a desire to finish the last few hundred feet to the top,” admitted President Longaker.
After about two hours at the peak, where the group rested, snacked, and took photos, the group descended 4,000 feet back to the base camp they had left the night before, arriving early afternoon, local time. Due to the limited availability of water and supplies, they couldn’t stay at this base camp for long. After about an hour’s rest, they continued down the mountain until nightfall. A final day brought them the remainder of the way down the mountain to waiting transportation.
Afterward, the group took a jeep safari to a game preserve on the Serengeti Plain and saw a variety of wildlife—“lions and a wide variety of their prey” as President Longaker put it. Aside from the unusual wildlife, President Longaker remarked upon several aspects of life in Africa. “It was a very different standard of living from what we are used to in the United States,” he explained. Stores and shopping centers were few; street vendors were the norm. Agriculture appeared to dominate the economy, with livestock brought out to pasture during the day and returning to the protection of villages overnight. “The local Maasai people in the villages outside of the cities [whose warriors are mythically renowned lion hunters] are no longer allowed to kill lions, except to protect their livestock,” said President Longaker. “However, it is still a mark of distinction for a young Maasai warrior to kill a lion protecting his flock.”
A concluding point made by President Longaker was of the reception of his group received from the local populace. “In all of the parts of Africa where we engaged, whether it was going through customers, in the cities, in the hotel, in the villages, or the people on the street, I never found anyone who had an unpleasant attitude toward visitors,” he expressed. “There was complete friendliness.”
When people think of college and university presidents and their achievements, one typically thinks of contributions they make to education. President Longaker—who last year received the Imagine American Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his 40 years of service to the career college sector—has certainly made his mark on the lives of thousands of graduates. It is not every day, however, that you see college presidents—much less at the age of 66—scaling 19,000-foot mountain peaks. Yet for President Longaker, this sort of accomplishment is routine. It is this ability to make extraordinary things look routine, in whatever you set out to pursue, that sets National apart.
“Our students and graduates show the world time and time again that challenges can be overcome, regardless of one’s age or circumstances,” said President Longaker. “I don’t see myself as anything other than an ordinary person, just like them.”