Bad news: If you’re just looking to climb, raft or fish for your own personal enjoyment, the Adventure Education program at Fort Lewis College probably isn’t right for you. This course of study goes beyond playing in the rivers, rocks and mountains. Students learn to utilize adventure and nature in their development of interpersonal skills (relationships between two or more people) and intrapersonal skills (the relationship one has with themselves). Students in this program seek professional, sustainable positions, aiming to work with and help others make positive changes in their lives via trees and water and all that natural grandeur.
This year marks the program’s 10th anniversary. It started small and has grown considerably. About 100 to 120 students now major in Ad Ed, with 30 to 40 minoring. The program exists within the liberal arts context of the college, so students focus on critical thinking, communication skills and writing. For a time, about 75 percent of the major was male, but lately the gender gap has evened out: This fall’s incoming class is 60 percent female. Ad Ed also sees about 10 percent higher out-of-state student enrollment than the rest of FLC, as so few colleges have this type of program. The wild beauty of Colorado is an additional attraction because our particular blend of landscapes makes for an incomparable open-air classroom. Several other schools around the country have outdoor education programs (University of New Hampshire is a big one). But it’s not a major akin to English, business or philosophy – Ad Ed isn’t available at every college, or even most of them. It’s a unique area of study, one that isn’t always understood or taken seriously.
Common misconceptionsBob Stremba, professor and chairman of the Adventure Education Department, was brought in to develop the FLC program in its infancy. There are plenty of misconceptions surrounding this oddball field, and teachers do their best to dispel them. Stremba details one common scenario: “Students come in as freshmen, then go back home for Thanksgiving and have to explain to family members around the dining room table, ‘How is this NOT camping for credit?’”
Lee Frazer, another professor in the program, claims students must be interested in both nature AND human development to flourish. “You have to be patient and good with people,” said Frazer. “You don’t have to be a jock or above-average adventurer. Students come to us if they’re interested in [working in] non-formal education. They just don’t want to teach in a traditional classroom.”
During the program’s first couple years, Frazer had a lot of PR to do on campus, challenging his non-Ad Ed colleagues’ incorrect assumptions about what the major would be. It’s a lot tougher and more serious in intent than many academics might think. “We’ve come a long way,” said Frazer. “Anecdotally, we’ve had a number of students transfer to other programs, because they can’t hack the hard work and the time in this one, or the character and professional expectations we have of students.”
Non-traditional schoolingThis kind of education could be classed as “non-traditional.” Students learn how to be educators in adventure environments rather than in formal ones, using outdoor pursuits to promote psychological and behavioral improvements in individuals or organizations. “Experiential” and “project-based” learning is the focus. Cooperation, trust and patience can all be learned on an expedition. Students also study risk, rescue and wilderness first aid. Senior project topics have included “the stress reduction in nature through dog companionship” and “aesthetic experiences in outdoor experiential education” (aka how the beauty of nature affects a person).
“I was interested in education, but didn’t necessarily want to work in schools, inside a ‘box’ as I saw it when I was younger,” said Kenyon “Tre” Neal, Ad Ed alumnus and current Outdoor Leadership Assistant & Staffing at Indian Head Camp in Pennsylvania. “The program gave me self-confidence in my ability to get up in front of a group and teach something. Initially, I wasn’t a very outwardly sociable, talkative type of person. But throughout the program, we did a lot of practice, group feedback and honing of our teaching skills. They also taught us a lot of outdoor skills like camping and rock-climbing – and then how to teach all those things.” According to Neal, classes were always small (most have around 10 students).
“Lecturing doesn’t necessarily provide transferable learning outcomes,” agreed Grayson Swingle, another Ad Ed graduate who now works at Teton Science Schools in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “The best part of this major was the student-centered learning. Every class involved student discussion more than professors lecturing. We never sat in rows – always circles – because students were the focus of our collective knowledge. Professors only facilitated the learning.” Knowledge often seems best retained experientally; sitting in a classroom can be dry and dull, and many students fall asleep, doodle or text surreptitiously as their professor drones on. But studying something physically, with a group, hands-on, is a much better method for those who are active learners.
“There were times that I could not believe I was in class doing the things I was,” said Rachel Horton, who is graduating from the program this summer. “Like when we were out canoeing on the Green River for 10 days or when we were building quinzhees (snow shelters) last winter. People have always told me, from a young age, that when you love the work you do, it isn’t really a job; I think the same thing applies for education.”
Outdoor health benefitsStudies have proved, time and again, the immense benefits to being outside. “There’s all this empirical literature about what time in nature does for us psychologically,” said Frazer. “Nature provides focus, not unlike coffee as a stimulant. Stress reduction is another big theme; one study compared people driving down a tree-lined boulevard versus a sprawling, sign-filled, no-green-space street. They looked at cortisol (the stress hormone) output, and it showed there’s much less cortisol produced driving down the green boulevard. It’s a calming effect.” And while walks in nature have been proved to fight depression, you don’t necessarily need to be in the woods to reap the rewards. “Researchers have taken two groups in a hospital setting and given one group access to a view of nature,” said Frazer. “They’ve shown repeatedly that people who have a view onto nature recover more quickly and require fewer drugs.”
Career tracksYou might be thinking, “OK, but what do these kids actually do for work?” There are a surprising number of career tracks for Adventure Education grads. “We have a graduate student at Open Sky Wilderness who proposed a therapeutic farm,” said Frazer. “It’s in Mancos, owned and operated by Open Sky. We have several students working with the Colorado Outward Bound program full-time. The big focus there is on “transference”: How does getting up this peak today relate to your resistance around some school project you’re dealing with? They’re trying to expand self-awareness.” The job posting board in the Ad Ed building includes listings like L.L. Bean kayak instructor, Outdoor Adventure Specialist, Field Education with AmeriCorps and wilderness therapy at Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center.
Seasonal jobs in this field are admittedly easier to come by than full-time positions. Even Neal, who has a full-time job with Indian Head in Pennsylvania, only works there in the summers when camp is in session. He spends half the year back in Colorado. At Indian Head, Neal hires and trains staff and organizes the outdoor program, which includes taking kids on outdoor explorations.
“That’s one of the drawbacks to our field – there are positions that take you out into the woods or desert for a long time, but that’s not necessarily sustainable,” said Frazer. “I tell my students to be more broadly marketable, to do a minor in psychology or business administration.” Ad Ed majors tend to be adventurous types, so they won’t necessarily fit into the 9-to-5, desk-job mold. “A lot of graduating students choose to do a gap year, traveling while putting together a couple seasonal jobs,” said Stremba.
Horton is interning at Durango Nature Studies now, teaching students about the environment; but next fall she plans to begin work with the ministry Christian Challenge on the FLC campus. “Even though working with them won’t have as much of an outdoor focus, a lot of what I learned through the AE program will still be applicable, because it is such a people-focused major,” she said.
Swingle, working in a Wyoming environmental education center, teaches students from around the country in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (one of the last remaining large, nearly-intact ecosystems in the northern temperate zone of the Earth). They focus on increasing scientific literacy in kids, taking them hiking, backpacking and canoeing to encourage appreciation for the natural sciences. “Spending extended amounts of time in wild places improved the quality of my life growing up,” said Swingle. “I thought if I could spend my career leading people outside, I would live a fulfilling life. What kept me in this major was the realization that I can provide others with opportunities to have similar experiences.”