College degrees in outdoor education are ‘preparing people to be outside professionals’
'I think a lot of people don't realize it's an option'
With over 150 majors for college students to consider, outdoor education might not necessarily come to mind first. Unfortunately, after the glory days of outdoor ed in early education, many students switch their focus to math, science and other career paths.
However, according to College Board, 21 colleges offer bachelor degrees in outdoor education, including Fort Lewis College in Durango and Northland College in Wisconsin.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize it’s an option,” said Elizabeth K. Andre, an associate professor at Northland College’s Outdoor Education Nature and Culture Department. “It’s basically preparing people to be outside professionals.”
A lot of graduates work in wilderness expedition leading or instruction or at parks. Many businesses and organizations in the tourism industry hire director’s of recreation, and most colleges and universities have recreation programs that require staffing.
“There’s actually a lot of work in the outdoor industry,” Andre said. “It’s a pretty huge industry.”
While less than 25 schools offer undergraduate programs in outdoor education in the U.S., Andre said there’s a handful where masters programs are available and a few where students can attain a doctoral in outdoor education.
The outdoor education program at Northland College has students practice kayak rescues, snowshoe in the national forest and develop skills to thrive.
“I think our graduates probably wish it was all outdoors, but it’s not,” Andre said. “There’s a mix of classroom and outdoors.”
While Andre takes her students out to explore the nature of Wisconsin — “It’s a well-kept secret,” she said — she tries to get to Colorado herself as much as she can. Earlier this year, she was in Buena Vista for a week working as a canoe instructor on the Arkansas River for American Canoe Association.
“Colorado is amazing,” she said. “The ability to get into the backcountry so quickly from urban areas is amazing.”
Andre’s mother got her masters degree in 1972 in outdoor recreation and education, about the beginning when you could get a masters in the field. Andre herself earned her masters in outdoor education from Griffith University in Australia and her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction of science and environmental education from the University of Minnesota. She has led more than 2,000 days of wilderness expeditions, field courses and outdoor training in backpacking, mountaineering, climbing, canoeing, kayaking, ski touring and dogsledding.
“She took me outdoors the whole time I was growing up,” Andre said of her mother. “I didn’t realize it was something you could actually make a living with until I was a little bit older and realized that was what I wanted to do.”
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