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No Classroom Required: Hike, Bike, and Paddle Your Way to an Adventurous Career

For most college students, classes involve a classroom, homework is done in the library, and dorm rooms are meant for studying and sleeping.

For outdoor adventure and leadership (OAL) majors, classes and homework are done outdoors, and fieldwork may have students sleeping anywhere from a tent to a snow cave.

Check out this video of the OAL immersion semester.


“If you love hands-on experience, then this is a great major for you,” says Margaret Arnold, associate professor and chair of the recreation and leisure studies (RLS) department.

The program was launched in the fall of 2003 and began as a request from students. At that time, the RLS department had a leisure services major with an outdoor emphasis.

“When I was hired in 2006, I revamped the curriculum so that it could be a lot stronger,” says Chris Pelchat, an instructor in the department. “The immersion semester most likely puts us in the top five [OAL programs] in the country.”

Who knew college could be this fun?

OAL majors white water rafting

OAL is a major based on applying leadership skills to help others understand and appreciate their natural surroundings. While time is spent in the classroom, it is important that OAL students use the skills they are learning in their “lab” -- the outdoors.

The program emphasizes outdoor program administration, team building, problem solving, adventure leadership, and natural resource management.

With a core of 27 OAL-specific courses, students get a blend of classroom, outdoor experience, theory, and practice on all fronts. One class, called Outdoor Adventure Skills, allows students to get experience in rock climbing, backpacking, and pedaling.

OAL majors also have to complete two required fieldwork experiences: an internship, and the immersion semester -- an entire semester devoted to fully participating in the field of the student’s choice.

“I did my first fieldwork at the IACC Day Care Center, where I worked with kids improving their living skills, fine motor skills, and large motor skills,” explains Mike Williams ’09.

During his immersion semester, Williams traveled all over the country to gain practical experience. He spent his time sea kayaking in the Florida Everglades, winter camping and backcountry skiing in Utah, rock climbing in the Northwest, and white-water rafting.

“Ultimately, I could see the immersion program going year-round, almost like the Los Angeles program or the Washington program,” says Arnold. “I would like to see it rise to that level.”

And if Pelchat has anything to do with it, it probably will. Pelchat, who is president of the national Wilderness Education Association, has been instrumental in getting Ithaca’s OAL program some national exposure by developing national standards and creating what Arnold calls a “truly phenomenal program.”

“In the back country, it’s nice to know that your instructor is the president of WEA and has a tremendous amount of experience in the field,” says Williams.

OAL majors come out of college with at least one year of professional experience, which puts them at the top of the list when it comes time to find a job. Career opportunities vary from outdoor educator, to tour guide, adventure educator, resource manager, and many more. Other options include jobs in camp management, ecotourism, youth-at-risk programs, and the adventure travel industry.

“We’ve had students who have gone into outdoor programs on university and college campuses, as well as students who have gotten into ski resort management,” explains Arnold. “In this program, we bombard the students to make sure that they have those skills to succeed.”

With about 50 undergraduate OAL programs nationwide, and about 75 programs ranging from associates to master’s degrees in the subject, OAL is becoming a sought-after major among students today. And while some may have to travel to get in their outdoor experiences, Ithaca students have the advantage of living in an environment where their classroom is right outside their door.

“Here, we don’t need to go far to experience what we need to accomplish,” says Arnold. “I think we live in the most amazing area. It’s perfect for OAL.”

 




Originally published in Fuse: No Classroom Required: Hike, Bike, and Paddle Your Way to an Adventurous Career.