Ithaca College Quarterly 2004/2
Natural Degree

 

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Ecotourism training in Baja, Mexico

Along with philosophy and history, students learn practical skills in the Outdoor Adventure Skills class. "We teach them all the hard skills: from how to tie a variety of knots to technical climbing skills," says Porter. Other classes, he explains, focus on leadership and the administration of outdoor pursuits, such as designing and organizing summer camps, putting together a 30-day expedition, risk management -- in short, everything that is involved in leading such pursuits, including learning to drive a 15-passenger van. "We teach them the skills they need to run an entrepreneurial recreation business. And we teach them pedagogy," Porter adds, because students will be not just skiing or fly fishing or lighting a stove, but also teaching people these basic outdoors skills.

Another focus of the major will be ecotourism and natural resource management. TRLS students have already gone to New Zealand and to Baja, Mexico, as part of their studies. "We are trying to set up a base right now in Baja," says Porter. "We're working with a man who runs an ecotourism business. Our plans are to help build the business, so that we can use it as a tool to educate and train ecotourism guides, providing a great cross-cultural internship opportunity for our students." Since many ecotourism businesses are overseas, this setup allows students to have this experience "in a developing nation, where they can see from the ground up how to do things properly -- how to build a sustainable operation, one where the money stays in the nation rather than going to multinational corporations that come in to build hotels."

Is this a political program? After all, some people tend to associate environmentalism with a liberal agenda. "Seventy percent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists," says Porter. "The program itself is apolitical, which is why we introduce students to the various philosophies [behind recreational land and wilderness management]. The conservation ethic is conservative by nature." And, Porter says, there's a spiritual side, too. "One of the components of being out in nature has always been the spiritual benefits: you can meditate on creation or evolution. It is a way of getting back to students' belief systems -- it drives how they move from the wilderness to the real world. We attract a lot of people with deep religious convictions." Porter points out that "stewardship and care are not antithetical to Christianity. Stewardship brings in the spiritual aspect."

Faculty members Linda Heyne and Rob Porter are eager to hear from alumni who are interested in helping to build the program. Contact lheyne@ithaca.edu or rporter@ithaca.edu if you would like to get involved.

Ithaca's own natural setting provides a good training ground for some of the practical skills. "Our facilities are our outdoors," says Porter. "We have 300 acres of woods behind campus with trails. It's my most valuable classroom." Students also hike on nearby Connecticut Hill and in the Hammond Hill State Forest. The department is building up its collection of outdoor equipment: tents, backpacks, snowshoes, cross-country skis, and stoves. This equipment is available for rental to students, staff, and faculty through the outdoor recreation equipment center, which is housed in the Fitness Center.

It's not all outdoors, of course. "We have a regular classroom for the lectures," says Heyne. "We use the gym sometimes for belay and rappelling practice, and we rent Cornell's Lindseth Climbing Wall for climbing instruction. We are also proposing that a climbing wall be built on campus, which would be a huge asset to the program and the College," Heyne adds.

Siconolfi believes that IC is uniquely qualified to offer this 21st-century major. "We have two very strong qualities to make this work," he says. "First is a highly talented, experienced faculty -- both full-time and part-time. The second is the natural environment of this area. It provides a classroom experience like no other."

In a more balanced world, work, sleep, and leisure would comprise equal thirds of our lives. A spate of studies has shown the unhealthy increase in girth of many Americans, and adults now average only seven hours of sleep a night. A combination of work and inactive recreation -- watching TV, playing video games, sitting in front of a computer -- keeps pulling us away from the things that keep us healthy. This new major could not have come at a better time. The work-weary among us need to learn how to have fun again, and IC will soon be producing graduates capable of showing us the "ropes." end

 

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