A Place Beyond (APB) emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic as a place for students to come together and be part of a community when school communities have all gone virtual. Living in nature, secluded from the outside world, students get an opportunity to discover, discuss and learn what it means to be living in nature and the struggles the world faces when it comes to preserving it. SDG 4 (Quality Education) and 15 (Life on Land) are promoted in A Place Beyond as students can learn virtually their academia in a community of other students from different ways of life and learn together the importance of life on land.
Case Western Reserve University - Weatherhead School of Management
When the COVID-19 pandemic set in, countless people around the world lost their jobs, thousands of universities and colleges shut their doors, and millions of children and adults struggled through the transition of doing school work at home. For almost every college student around the country, social interaction was at an all time low, the communities that were built on campuses and in the dorms were shattered, and students were trying to figure out how to remain motivated at home. As the pandemic persisted, many colleges and universities made the hard decision to either drastically reduce population or completely shut down their residential campuses. Seeing this trend, Ciaran Willis saw an opportunity to follow one of his long standing dreams of creating a place for education to flourish while simultaneously combining his love for nature and fostering community. After extensive planning, A Place Beyond was born.
The emergence of APB took a few twists and turns before becoming what it is today. When the pandemic hit, Ciaran was able to connect with the two other people who played large roles in conceptualizing APB. Aidan, his brother, has a strong background in structural engineering, budgeting, and finance. Charlie, a great childhood friend, has expertise in marketing. Ciaran was very familiar with the outdoor programming work and summer camp management. Together, Ciaran noted that all of their skills worked well to complement each other, and everything seemed to come together at the right time during the pandemic.
After interviewing Ciaran, it was clear that this innovation aligned with a mission and purpose. APB’s overall mission is to “create spaces, communities, and lifestyles where growth, balance, and progression are at the forefront and more easily accessible and attainable.” Through his past experiences with camp management and outdoor programming, Ciaran knew, firsthand, the benefits of connecting with nature and fostering community while doing so. He strongly believes that this lifestyle breeds spaces and communities where individuals can bond and grow together while still following their own paths and going on their own journeys. This personal and organizational mission feeds into the purpose of APB. Ciaran notes that bringing together so many individuals from different backgrounds, walks of life, and universities creates a unique environment that lacks the typical competitiveness that exists on any given college campus since everyone is attending a different school. Instead, the students at APB are able to get their education while also have the space to connect with each other and nature in an organic way. Because everyone is living a shared experience centered around the camp, not school or tests, individuals at APB are able to explore this new lifestyle in a more holistic manner.
Originally, Ciaran had the goal of creating a full school, but the project quickly became complicated through the navigation of barriers to entry, requirements, network, qualifications, and capital. The motivation for this innovation came out when Ciaran saw the change in education, both before and after the pandemic struck. “Education has become increasingly competitive,” Ciaran said, “so when I came up with this idea I wanted to create a less competitive structure that would be more fitting for basic college learning.” So it was at this point that the three friends realized that they were going to need to innovate, and it occurred to them that there were millions of students who were already in school but had no concrete place to do their schooling. This immediately eliminated the need for teachers, classrooms, and qualified instructors. Next, a school would take a long time to construct, but Ciaran drew on his outdoorsman experience and knew that a camp was both conducive to community development and provided a safe space to learn. Not only that, but camps were less complex than school campuses and were much more accommodating when it came to COVID restrictions such as social distancing. From all of these realizations and critical thinking sessions that Ciaran, Aidan, and Charlie created APB, a very large campsite-like complex where college students from all over the country came to live together while they all remotely attended their respective colleges and universities while staying safe from the pandemic. These students pay a fee, comparable to the cost of living in an on-campus dorm. They eat meals together and do fun activities while still having the freedom that students would typically experience on a college campus.
Turning from inspiration to impact, A Place Beyond’s focus on creating quality educational programming has had a strong positive impact on the business, the environment, and society. A Place Beyond started with 45 students in its first semester and grew to 105 its second semester. A large reason for this growth is the students. Through APB’s focus on creating an intentional community, it inspired its students to grow that community. APB students volunteered to do welcome calls, recruiting new students for the next semester. By providing quality community and educational programming, APB helped grow its business through students wanting to give back.
APB’s impact on society is more abstract and long term. APB’s mission statement is that they are, “Working to create spaces, communities, and lifestyles where growth, balance, and progression are at the forefront and more easily accessible and attainable.” APB is working to create individuals who know how to create community and to strive for growth. The impact on society is what these individuals will bring to new communities when they leave APB. For example, one of the main focuses of the workshops held at APB is understanding the land you live on. Students learn about many aspects of land from learning about the Native Americans whose land this was before it was stolen to learning about redlining in cities and racist housing policies. When students leave APB, they will bring this knowledge into new communities and have the skills to spread and grow that knowledge.
APB’s impact on the environment also connects to education. Ciaran’s philosophy is that, “People need to have some connection to some natural place. They need a connection to preserve it.” He views APB as giving students a connection to the environment, a new appreciation of it. Students have the chance to learn about the environment, live in the environment, and play in the environment. Additionally, weekly workshops on conservation work help give students a way to seek action.
APB makes an impact on students directly during their semester there and makes a long term impact on society through the knowledge and skills they give the students. One example of a short term impact and the kind of community APB creates is the simple interaction of a junior at MIT helping a freshman with their intro to stats homework. APB creates a learning environment where students can grow and learn from each other. Long term, students will take skills they learned from workshops on topics such as racism in the environment, sexism in the outdoors, restorative justice, and more and bring this knowledge to new communities. One form of concrete evidence that this impact has happened and will continue to occur is through the exit surveys that students have filled out. An overwhelming number of students say that they have been impacted by the APB workshops and learn from them. Additionally, a majority of students say they feel more comfortable leading workshops at the end of the semester than they did at the beginning.
The negative human impact on our environment is almost inescapable. As climate change and other environmental matters plow to the forefront of news and media, everyone is being forced to take a serious look at how humans are treating the planet. At APB, college students are being given the time, space, and special opportunities to turn their attention towards nature. While at college, students do not often have time to get off of their campus and truly be one with nature. Ciaran impactfully notes that people “need connection to preserve it” in relation to saving the environment. While at APB, these students are living in the heart of nature and have time everyday to be outdoors. Especially because APB is located in Arizona, they are as heavily restricted by the changing seasons so students get to be in the beauty of nature year around. Ciaran hopes that when their students leave, they do so with a new or renewed sense of connection to the environment and a love for preserving it as they move forward. Fostering a new generation of young adults who respect and value nature will certainly benefit the environment in the future.
While Ciaran and APB place a large emphasis on the environment, APB also strives to focus on community and the societal effects of their program. Ciaran recognizes the challenges that modern society imposes on interpersonal relationships both on a micro and macro level. Ciaran defines community as “a web of relationships.” Building off of this, Ciaran wanted APB to be a safe place where individuals of all different backgrounds are able to come together, and in pursuing that mission, Ciaran “feels a responsibility to to create a scaffolding for engaging in community now and in the future, advocate for change, and search for harmony.” Acknowledging that the world is so polarized, Ciaran wanted APB to be a place where students could gather, learn to appreciate differences and create harmony between people of different viewpoints. As with the impact on the environment, APB has the strong potential to create long and lasting change into the future, as carried by the individuals who spend time at APB and walk away with new appreciation for society and the environment.
Ciaran Willis, Founder
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Arizona, Colorado, US
Business Website: https://aplacebeyond.com
Year Founded: 2020
Number of Employees: 11 to 50
A Place Beyond is an organization that offers college students a cheaper place to take online classes in a community where they can learn and grow as individuals and learn valuable lessons about the land they live on and the people they encounter.