Photo courtesy of ASU Outdoor Programs
ASU’s Outdoor Programs leads a trip to Italy in May 2013.
Wes Overvold thought he could go sea kayaking with his eyes closed.
The Appalachian State upperclassman and Savannah, Ga., native had already led several of the university’s Outdoor Programs sea kayaking excursions. But one gorgeous fall 2013 day off of Georgia’s Tybee Island led to a harrowing experience Overvold had never encountered in six years of paddling.
The student group had trekked two and a half miles away from base camp to an uninhabited area, enjoying lunch and Frisbee in beautiful weather. Then, sunny skies were suddenly usurped by a vicious, unexpected wind and rainstorm.
“It just popped up on us out of nowhere,” Overvold said. The group decided to sprint back to the island toward their camp and gear. “It was a very hurried crossing back over. The wind started picking up, and one of the participants capsized,” he said. Overvold waved the rest of the group onward as he aided the capsized paddler. Conditions worsened. “I looked behind me, and a swell was right on top of us. Visibility was down to twenty yards, with no sign of land.” Overvold urged the participants still with him to keep paddling through the choppy surf and into the wind. “We got this,” he reassured them. “I’m here; I’m not going to leave you.”
Finally, the storm began to lift, and the paddlers rushed to the tree line and safely onto shore. Outdoor Programs taught Overvold many valuable lessons, that day and throughout his college career.
“It was quite the experience, how those things happen, how you’ve got to manage it, the on-the-fly calls I had to make,” he said. “It keeps me as a more humble paddler instead of thinking that I’m in control of the elements.”
From Innovation to Expectation
Though a common offering at universities today, the integration of adventure and academia was a novel consideration in the early 1970s, when introduced at ASU, but the program’s roots reach back even farther to the late nineteenth century, when Kurt Hahn was born to a Jewish family in Germany. ASU student Kim Sherrill began with Hahn’s story in a 1986 paper tracing the origins of Outdoor Programs and experiential outdoor education at the university. As headmaster of Germany’s The Salem School and founder of The Gordonstoun School in England, Hahn developed an international reputation as an educational pioneer, Sherrill wrote, and he was troubled by what he perceived as a moral decline and lack of physical fitness among youth.
“The youth today are surrounded by tempting declines—declines which affect the adult world—the decline of fitness, due to modern methods of moving about; decline of memory and imagination, due to the confused restlessness of modern life; decline of skill and care, due to the weakened condition of modern life; decline of self discipline due to stimulants and tranquilizers. Worst of all, the decline in compassion due to the unseemly haste with which modern life is conducted,” Hahn was cited as saying.
Hahn believed that in addition to improved physical health, immersion in the outdoor environs would instill in young people a moral independence, compassion for others, and a desire for service to the community. He designed a program to help train young sailors based on these principles—it was the very first Outward Bound program, founded in Wales in 1941. Two decades later, the first Outward Bound school opened in the U.S., in Colorado, and on July 2, 1967, the North Carolina Outward Bound School became the fifth to be established stateside. The Outward Bound Board of Directors selected Table Rock as the N.C. headquarters, and in April 1968 Murray Durst was hired to direct the program.
It was about that time Dr. James Jackson came on at Appalachian State as the new dean of educational innovation, and his role, as he described it, was to “excite and encourage people involved in every aspect of the university to try new things and do new things and not be intimidated by wanting to do something new.” And it just so happened that Mr. Jackson and Mr. Durst were on board the same Piedmont Airlines flight on one foggy night back in 1969, and the rest is history. ASU became the first university in the nation to award academic credit for Outward Bound courses. Its Office of Outdoor Programs opened in 1973, serving 190 individuals on 19 outdoor expeditions in its first year.
ASU quickly garnered national recognition for its innovations in outdoor and experiential education, with coverage in publications such as Woman’s Day and College and University Business, and Newsweek, which noted that student interest in ASU led to overflow enrollment in the midst of a national enrollment slump. ASU’s experiment generated numerous inquiries from other universities, which led to the North American Conference in Outdoor Pursuits in Higher Education, then to several follow up conferences, and then to the establishment of the Association for Experiential Education in 1977. Today, AEE is a network of more than 1,500 members in 33 countries educating more than 2.8 million people each year.
The Office of Outdoor Programs at ASU was among only a few dozen similar programs in the country when it began in the early ‘70s.
“There are well over 1,000 programs in the U.S. now,” said Rich Campbell, associate director of ASU Outdoor Programs. “It’s been a big growth area in higher education.” Campbell, who holds a bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation and a master’s in student development, has been a full-time staff member since 1996. Today, there are multiple ways for students of all disciplines to plug into Outdoor Programs’ offerings. Any student, faculty or staff member can rent outdoor gear such as a camping tent, backpack, climbing shoes, or even a sea kayak. They can take a turn on the university’s indoor climbing wall or complete a challenge course as a team-building exercise. And they can sign up for outdoor excursions ranging from day trips to multi-week expeditions.
“You can be any major and participate on an outdoor program,” Campbell said. “You can be a physics major and come and do a rafting trip…or come and work for us.”
In the southwestern mountains of North Carolina, Appalachian’s public university peer, Western Carolina University, was not far behind in establishing its own outdoor activity center: Base Camp Cullowhee. It began in the mid 1980s, founded by a few professional staff members who shared an interest in promoting outdoor programs to students on campus. Early outdoor trips included skiing in the Adirondacks, canoeing in Canada, and biking in Utah. Operating for years as an arm of the student entertainment programming organization, Base Camp Cullowhee eventually split off as an independent program in 2000. Josh Whitmore, who spent seven or eight years as an expedition guide leading trips all around the world, now leads the program as an associate director. The Brevard, N.C. native said his current position is the perfect job for those in his field seeking a transition to a more year-round, secure livelihood.
“Expedition guiding is awesome, but it has a lifespan,” he said. “Eventually those of us who do that want to move on from spending 270 nights a year in a sleeping bag.”
Western’s program continues to grow. It now has three full-time employees and 20 student staff members. In 2008, Base Camp Cullowhee opened a 2,100-square-foot indoor rock climbing facility, and last year, the college completed a seven-mile multi-use trail system. Like Campbell, Whitmore has observed the proliferation of outdoor programs at colleges and universities—once an anomaly in higher education, now they’re a trend.
“Over the last ten years, it’s becoming expected at a lot of universities; it’s part of that amenities package,” Whitmore said.
From Cullowhee to Costa Rica
Backpacking, rafting, hiking, climbing—Claire Lippy is only a sophomore at Western Carolina, but she’s done it all and more through Base Camp Cullowhee. Oh, and “I really love the caving trips,” she said. “I enjoy being underground, finding my way through tight spaces.” Involved with Base Camp even before setting foot into a college classroom for the first time, Lippy has served as a student staff member since the second semester of her freshman year, and there’s not a lot that rattles her. Her most daunting personal challenge on a Base Camp trip? “Every now and then you’ll forget to pack butter or oil, and it’s ten times harder to cook things,” she said.
But as a trip leader, she’s at times a bit concerned for others. “A couple of times we’ll have someone get in a cave and get freaked out, and we have to talk them down, let them know nothing’s going to happen to them,” Lippy said. “Or rock climbing, we can have people get halfway up, and then they don’t want to move. One time on a backpacking trip we did have a girl not bring a rain jacket, and it rained four or five days that trip. That was the most worried I can [remember being]. But she was fine.”
For her, Base Camp is about “leadership, becoming more outspoken and stepping up,” Lipp said. “For rafting, you’ve got to step up and be loud and make sure everybody’s listening to you.”
And that’s the point. Base Camp Cullowhee, according to its mission statement, “provides experiences that foster student engagement, synthesis of knowledge and skills, community building, healthy recreation habits, and student retention.” In addition to the aforementioned activities, Base Camp offers lessons in whitewater kayaking, canoeing, skiing, and skydiving, and more. “If it’s done outside, chances are you can sign up to do it with us,” the website claims. Ideally nestled in the Southern Appalachians, Base Camp doesn’t have to venture far to provide all of these experiences. The program occasionally offers trips to other states or countries, such as Costa Rica, Whitmore says, but “that’s not a huge part of our program. We’re concentrated on what we’re doing nearby.” There’s an emphasis on skill development, too, with on-campus clinics in rock climbing belaying, kayak rolling, bike tuning, wilderness first aid, and more.
“We’re certainly very beginner friendly; we introduce people to a lot of outdoor activities, and then they start doing it on their own with their friends,” Whitmore said.
When school’s in session at Appalachian, hardly a date on the calendar is without a scheduled Outdoor Programs activity. As at Base Camp, App State’s Outdoor Programs offers on-campus workshops in climbing and kayaking skills, and the program takes full advantage of its mountain locale to provide a variety of outdoor excursions. “Because of our geographic location…we can get out to climbing, paddling, and caves without it being a really big ordeal—it doesn’t take a lot of travel time,” Campbell said. “But we’ve also tried to make sure that we don’t take that for granted, to do new things, to be creative.” April’s itinerary, for example, featured weekend jaunts to go surfing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, bike riding on the Virginia Creeper Trail near Abingdon, Va., climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, and sea kayaking off of Georgia’s Tybee Island. The program has sponsored past trips across the country to Alaska and Wyoming and multiple international outings to New Zealand, Wales, Fiji, Italy, and the Canadian Rockies.
In general, programs at both universities are not open to the general public because student fees support the programs. But both find ways to involve and engage the local community.
Youth enrolled in GEAR UP and Upward Bound—initiatives that help prepare area middle and high school students for college—participate in Outdoor Programs-facilitated camping, kayaking, and backpacking outings. Every summer, seventh- through ninth-graders spend a week at ASU’s Adventure Camp, exploring North Carolina’s High Country through activities such as canoeing, rock climbing, team building, rafting, and hiking, led by Outdoor Programs staff. The same goes for Base Camp Cullowhee, which hosts the Catamount Adventure Camp.
Base Camp annually leads the Tuck River Cleanup—which removes between two and four tons of trash from 23 miles of the Tuckaseegee River near the towns of Sylva, Dillsboro and Cherokee, N.C. and is the largest single-day river cleanup in the country. “This was our 30th year,” Whitmore said about the event held in April. “We had close to 1,000 people volunteering for this thing.” Participants were rewarded for their service with a free cookout and festival featuring live music, door prizes, and bounce houses for kids.
In Boone, the annual screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival and affiliated Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition have become symbols of community prestige, and for some, one of the top social events of the year. This year marked the 18th that Outdoor Programs has hosted a screening of the Alberta, Canada-based Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, which showcases short and extended features on climbing and mountaineering, outdoor adventure, mountain culture, and the environment to more than 390,000 people on all continents. For more than a decade the two-night screenings in a 2,000-seat auditorium have been sellouts in Boone.
“Our mission is really to serve the ASU student population, but…through the film festival, we also have a chance to really outreach to the local community,” said Campbell, who believes the film festival resonates so strongly because of the local industries dedicated to mountain sports. “It’s so well received that it has really kind of elevated the status of Boone on a much larger scale.” The director of the Banff World Tour told Campbell, for instance, that if someone asks about one of the 800 screening locations that stands out, “he says, ‘Inevitably, I bring up Boone, North Carolina.’” Indeed, the atmosphere at the screening held in March of this year was more akin to a rock concert—with excited filmgoers of all ages whistling and cheering in anticipation.
From Hahn’s Hypothesis to Real Results
Outdoor programs are more than just a trendy amenity at Appalachian and Western; they offer substantial, lasting benefits to students and to universities, and the programs have the numbers and the anecdotal evidence to prove it.
For starters, the programs aid in recruitment, as the availability of outdoor activities factors heavily into the college selection decisions of some students. That was the case with Lippy: “I’m from Atlanta, and so I definitely wanted a school that had an outdoor program and offered a lot of outdoor trips.” Wes Overvold’s high school counselor in Savannah, Ga., knew that he enjoyed the outdoors, which is why she recommended App State. “I did some research and learned that it was one of the larger outdoor programs east of the Mississippi,” Overvold said. “It was really a huge deciding factor for my college decision.”
Several years ago, Western Carolina hired a consultant to help develop its marketing content. “Big surprise,” said Whitmore, a bit wryly—the firm’s conclusion was that Western should capitalize on what makes it unique, which is its rural mountain lifestyle. “That sort of shifted directions for us a bit; [Base Camp] had more respect and support after that.” ASU students have indicated on surveys that location is one of the top reasons for choosing the university, Campbell said. Accolades including being named the Association of Outdoor Recreation in Education’s Program of the Year in 2011 have bolstered the program.
“A lot of people look at ASU as one of the schools to really consider if you want to look at outdoor opportunities,” Campbell said. “So yeah, I think we have contributed to part of the brand of ASU.”
And once students come to Appalachian or Western, outdoor programs help keep them there. Both programs provide First Ascent wilderness orientation activities for incoming freshmen.
“We use the outdoors as a metaphor for starting a new life at the university,” Whitmore said. “A five- or six-day-long backpacking trip is a brand new environment for students, and that transfers directly over to their new life in the university world. They learn they have to work together, to know how to ask for help, to be personally responsible for their actions, to tow their weight, to pay attention to doing things correctly and to craftsmanship, and to building community experience. All of those transfer to learning.” Since the First Ascent program began at Western, the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate for participants is 87 percent, Whitmore said—almost 10 percentage points higher than the university average of 79 percent.
Many outdoor programs participants experience life-changing shifts in their perceptions of themselves and their own abilities.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different students, first time backpacking or first time climbing, and they say, ‘I signed up for this trip because I really wanted to see if I could do it,’” Campbell said. “And people are amazed that they have the ability to carry everything on their back and move from point A to point B, and they find strength in that. I’ve had students who really didn’t see themselves as being kind of physically active, or they’re not part of sports teams, they don’t do intramurals…but they would do a big backpacking trip, really long where we cross this big range, and the perspective that they brought back was ‘I kind of feel like if I can do that, I can do anything.’
“That’s the perspective that we’re trying to give to students.”
Zach Hunter, an App State sophomore, remembers his first backpacking trip: “You’re trying to carry as many things on your body that you’re going to need, [and you realize that] what you actually need isn’t that much,” he said. “The feeling was almost empowering. You have this minimalist attitude knowing you can live comfortably without a whole bunch of stuff.”
Exposure to the outdoors through multi-day, multi-week, or even daylong treks instills in the modern-day student a deep appreciation for the natural environment, Campbell said. “You can learn a lot about it through textbooks, and maybe through labs and things like that, but…there’s something about immersing yourself in the environment that gives you some pretty valuable perspectives about ecology and conservation.” To that end, a couple of years ago Outdoor Programs led a 30-day “Source to Sea” trip. Participants first hiked at the headwaters of nearby Wilson Creek, rafted the Wilson Creek gorge, then canoed down to the Catawba River, traded out their canoes for sea kayaks, and traveled all the way to the coast.
“Those students will forever have a different perception of river ways,” Campbell said. “The concept that rivers start somewhere, and they end somewhere, and they feed communities.”
Students on these trips forge friendships and relationships for a lifetime, the directors say, and the programs experiences can send career paths in different directions. Hunter, a recreation management major with a concentration in outdoor experiential education, said that at first he planned to study physical training. “[Outdoor Programs] definitely showed me what recreation management was,” he said. “In my mind, it was a park ranger, or that guy that mows the grass on the soccer field. I had no idea what it fully encompassed.” Overvold graduated this spring with a marketing degree and minor in media studies. He plans to work for a marketing and media production company that specializes in outdoor brands.
ASU alum Derek DiLuzio’s Outdoor Programs experiences actually steered him away from a career in recrecation management. An active OP trip leader, DiLuzio began taking photos with a disposable camera on a trip to New Zealand. When he didn’t like the shots that developed, he kept shooting, and he picked up an award for a landscape shot in the early years of the OP’s Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition. “That competition really jump-started what I was doing,” DiLuzio said. “I ended up phasing out the trip leading stuff, mainly because I wasn’t watching participants—I was turning around taking pictures most of the time. I realized I couldn’t do both.” DiLuzio now owns his own Asheville-based photography business after spending several years in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and he specializes in outdoor action sports such as mountain biking and fly-fishing. As his website puts it, “photography found Derek.”
College classes alone would not have imparted in Hunter the strong sense of community he has learned through Outdoor Programs, he said. “There’s a lot of good people. Everybody who works at Outdoor Programs has a great heart. We’re definitely focused on caring about other people first.”
And for that, Kurt Hahn would be quite proud.
Sustaining a tourism economy
In addition to their benefits to student development and to university recruitment and retention, outdoor programs at Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University play vital roles in sustaining a growing outdoor recreation and tourism economy in Western North Carolina.
“The rise of outdoor recreation tourism in Western North Carolina in general is pretty big,” said Josh Whitmore, director of WCU’s Base Camp Cullowhee. And outdoor programs not only provide well-trained staff to support the area’s recreation businesses—they’re providing the clientele, too.
“Students that go through our programs, both as staff or participants, are learning general life skills that they would use to continue to recreate in that way,” Whitmore said. Added Rich Campbell, director of ASU Outdoor Programs, “Outdoor recreation has really turned into a very big business in the United States, and programs like ours definitely help drive that.”
In 2011, the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority finalized an Outdoor Recreation Plan, establishing a vision to become a top ten outdoor recreation destination in America and the No. 1 destination in the East. Included are plans to develop public access areas for mountain biking, paddling, fishing, climbing, and hiking, and many projects have already been completed.
Michelle Ligon, director of public relations and visitor services for Watauga TDA, said ASU’s programs produce lifelong outdoor enthusiasts who return to the area again and again. “We have a lot of alumni from ASU come back. There’s a lot of word of mouth about the places that people go,” she says.
Outdoor programs staff also share their expertise with industry leaders. For example, Base Camp Cullowhee staff serve on a committee that advises Duke Energy on such matters as river and lake access points and dam release schedules, Whitmore said.