Whether it is scaling a climbing wall, taking a hiking trip or learning how to fix a bike, an increasing number of schools are offering outdoor programs. These programs provide opportunities for students to not only get out of the classroom, but learn about the environment, develop new skills and socialize in a unique and fun setting.
Plus, keeping students involved with co-curricular activities on campus assists in enrollment and retention efforts of the university. As Dan McCoy, the assistant director of programs at the University of Wyoming explained, this is exactly why they gear the majority of their outdoor programs toward the average student.
“It is the student in the residence hall who has never been out on a trip before, who might not make it through the semester because they have not connected with other people, who we should really be reaching out to,” said McCoy. “Our programs and services should be inclusive. My philosophy has always been to offer a lot of introductory trips and programs. Get people hooked on this stuff, and then once they have the skills and abilities, they are more likely to stick around and complete their degree and be more successful at the university. Focus on the students who need to be in these programs, not those who will do it anyway.”
From equipment rental, to workshops and orientation trips, students have a wide variety of ways to get involved with outdoor programs. However, one of the most popular options are the various outings and trips hosted throughout the year. McCoy explained they run about 100 trips, programs and clinics.
“That is our big way to introduce students and university community members to the outdoors,” said McCoy. “The vast majority of those that we provide throughout the year are really aimed at getting people introduced to the outdoors, so while we do provide some advanced programs like ice climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park, the vast majority of our programs are introductory in nature.”
Some of these programs include: fundamentals of rock climbing, snowboard clinic, introduction to backpacking, backcountry cooking clinic and much more. The outdoor program also offers a number of certifications that students can get, such as Wilderness and Remote First Aid, Wilderness First Responder and Swift Water Rescue.
According to McCoy, all the trips and clinics are a huge hit with students. They are able to sign up for outings on the first day of classes each semester, and as McCoy explained, students clamor to sign up in time. “That Monday morning when sign up starts at 9 a.m., it is a little bit insane in here,” he added. “The first thing to fill up is our Level One Avalanche Class. I personally love that course because I have been teaching it for over a decade and we do two field sessions. These students, faculty and staff have a reasonable level of skiing, snowboarding and backcountry ability. They are wanting to take their skills to the next level, so it is fun to work with these students in class. We teach it in conjunction with our local ski patrol and that is such a great partnership.”
Other trips that are extremely popular with students are the spring break excursions. Previous trips have included rock climbing and canyoneering to Moab and a backpacking and yoga outing to southern Utah.
For the University of Maine Campus Recreation Department, outdoor programs also serve as a unique way to get students involved on campus. The Maine Bound Adventure Center offers a wide variety of trips, such as white water kayaking, rock climbing, standup paddle boarding, mountaineering, ice climbing and many others.
“We are constantly looking to offer new and unique trips,” said Lisa Carter, the assistant director of campus recreation for the Maine Bound Adventure Center. “Everything is fueled by the students. We meet each semester to have a trip planning party where the schedule is created and new trips are invented. The schedule is always changing based on what the trip leaders are currently into and feel comfortable leading.”
Carter explained one of the biggest challenges when running these trips is staffing. “The professional staff put so much time into training the trip leaders, and just when they are in their prime of leading they graduate,” said Carter. “But it’s awesome to have a rotating staff full of fun personalities and different interests.”
McCoy agreed the rapid turnover of student staff is a challenge, but they keep their focus on delivering high-quality and safe services for all participants. “With the model of higher turnover, it is important to get everyone up to speed and on the same page,” explained McCoy. “Training, certifications and making sure they have the proper field experience before going out on trips is essential. Student staff should not be thrown out into the field without any guidance. We try to provide a solid training. So there is a whole structure in place that mitigates the effects of slightly higher turnover.”