Imagine traversing mountains with 40 pound backpacks weighing you down, the sun burning your neck, and insects gnawing at your ankles. To some, this may seem like cruel and unusual punishment; however, the adverse conditions of outdoor adventure education can foster growth that would benefit college students in personal development, group work, and their ability to transition into the college experience. There are college students who constantly seek outdoor adventure trips; yet, the mass majority of young adults are trapped in cinder block classrooms. By incorporating outdoor adventure education in the curriculum’s of higher education, students would develop valuable life skills while the institution gains a cultivated community.
Several of my peers discuss the benefits of outdoor adventure therapy as a way to resolve pre-existing mental and emotional health issues, on the other hand, outdoor adventure education, takes a preventive approach. Outdoor adventure education (OAE) is a form of learning which uses the natural environment as a platform for personal growth. Often times these programs involve breaking down mental and physical barriers. Perhaps participants are not accustomed to sleeping on the ground for two weeks or having to collect and clean their own water. Perhaps their mind is unprepared for feeling isolated in the woods or having to remain calm when they lose the trail. According to Ewert & Yoshino, these psychological and physical tribulations associated with adventure trips have been proven to increase an individual’s resiliency and tenacity. One student who summitted an 11,300 foot mountain in extreme weather reported how he and his team “learned what [their] personal limits could endure […] in the face of such unexpected events with such adverse conditions”. As this student would validate, OAE trips are not perfect formulas and there are no safety nets. Yes, this makes them high risk; however, it makes the lessons learned more authentic and valuable.
At this point I might have intimidated you out of ever going hiking again let alone promoting OAE programs. Part of what makes outdoor adventure intimidating or uncomfortable is the predetermined fear of the unknown; though, participants in OAE are not expected to be free of fear. Instead, they are taught skills to recognize and utilize their fears to make safe decisions. The personal growth attained on the top of a treacherous mountain in Wyoming remains valuable in the four walls of a classroom and in the freedom of the “real” world.
As valuable as personal growth is, it becomes inconsequential if the individual cannot effectively be part of a group. Teamwork is imperative in OAE and is often the reason people sign up for adventure programs in the first place–an opportunity to become an integral member of a community. Often times in OAE programs, a participant is with the same people for an extended amount of time in remote locations. This situation fosters community development–the people are bonded together by common hardships and experiences. Research even supports that the more strenuous the activity, the stronger the connection between team members. OAE requires a development of trust in fellow participants. You will not get very far climbing a cliff face if you are unable to trust who is holding the rope and you will not survive college, let alone the real world, if you cannot build a strong support system.
Although college may not be as life-threatening as rock climbing, it does require similar inner strength and social skills. The college experience can be intimidating, overwhelming, and downright brutal. Mere teenagers are flown across the country and thrown into an unknown environment with very little guidance. One potential avenue for incorporating OAE into higher education curriculums would be an orientation program geared towards incoming freshman. A study published in The Journal of Experiential Education discovered that a first year wilderness orientation program provided students with a foundation of self-confidence and a built-in support system. An OAE program before college allows new students to sift through the jitters and discover who they are as an individual: away from their parents, friends they have known since grade school, and the comforts of home. Not only do these programs benefit the students psychologically, but according to an article published by the University of Birmingham, their grades have also been demonstrated to have “improved as a result of OAE being introduced into their curriculum.” An OAE orientation program would allow the students to acclimate to their new freedoms while providing the school with more developed individuals.
If an orientation program is not plausible for an institution or an individual, OAE could become an alternative to a formal study abroad program. For example, the University of Utah along with over 20 other institutions, utilizes NOLS semester programs which allows the students to gain outdoor experience while they earn 16 hours of college credit. If higher education would incorporate OAE programs into their curriculums, the individual would gain an incomprehensible amount of experience while the school gains a more developed and matured community.
Higher education does not need to be limited to manicured campuses and squeaky whiteboards. When used correctly, the wilderness environment can be a relevant tool in honing life-skills necessary for college. When these programs are incorporated into the formal curriculum of higher education, students who would otherwise never leave campus have the opportunity to get some dirt under their nails. Sometimes the most valuable lessons can only be learned from sweaty backs, sun burns, and bug bites.