Up to the Challenge
Creatively implementing programs featuring the great outdoors
By Dr. Travis L. Teague, Wingate University
The development of comprehensive outdoor programming in a college, university or other recreational setting can be challenging. There are many potential roadblocks that can threaten the success of your organization. Everything from gaining financial support to generating student or patron interest can be difficult and sometimes frustrating.
My experience with Wingate University, for example, has been very successful in the early stages of developing its outdoor programming. This article will focus on some distinct problem areas that were faced in the creation and implementation of the program as well as some specific strategies developed to address these issues.
Outdoor recreation activities have proven to be some of the most popular activities among college students today. At Wingate, for each of the past three years, every student that has taken a required “skills” class was asked via a survey, “Which activity classes would you like to see offered that are not currently being taught?” The overwhelming response has been to increase the number of individual activity offerings, primarily those associated with the outdoors. There have been several classes added to the curriculum including hiking and backpacking, fly-casting, and mountain biking.
With this all said, the first place to start when attempting to create an outdoor recreation program is with the client, in this case, the student body. It is critical that the students “buy in” to the idea of outdoor programming and the benefits that are a result from participation. A good starting place is to offer some outdoor recreation trips to gauge interest. Set up a whitewater-rafting trip, a ski outing or a horseback excursion. If students are willing to sign up and participate in these types of activities, then they may be willing to support a university effort to make outdoor programming a part of regular campus life.
The program at Wingate University, called the Outdoor Recreation Adventure Club (ORAC), was initiated by one faculty member who wrote a proposal to the student government association requesting funds to purchase outdoor equipment at a local used-equipment sale. The students agreed to fund $2,000. That money was used to purchase three five-person whitewater rafts and all the accessories necessary for a student trip. We felt that this type of purchase would allow for several students to participate together and would create more social interaction that would lead to higher satisfaction levels among participants. After a couple of whitewater trips, on relatively low-level rapids, the interest among students on campus had increased. It is important to note at this point the additional liability that the university might incur from its outdoor programming. Be sure to consult the proper officials concerning liability and participation.
Find your champions
Another key to success is finding a few dedicated students and at least one faculty or staff member who are willing to champion the cause of developing an outdoor activities program. This can require many volunteer hours and weekends away from home for the faculty/staff member, but there must be someone who can communicate the importance of the activities being offered for students to colleagues and the administration. The core group of students is vital to the success of the program. Our student leaders are all active in many other student organizations including the student government association. This membership in the university community is again vital to getting the word out concerning your programming. ORAC has been very well supported by the student organization on campus that funds the different student clubs and organizations. One reason that the funding has been so generous is that leaders with ORAC strive to offer activities that are designed for all members of the student body. This is unique since most clubs and organizations are designed for the select members of each particular club. Therefore, it is important to consider all of your options when it comes to funding. If there is not a specific budget available for outdoor programming, there may be a clubs and organizations fund or some other avenue available.
As mentioned earlier, as funding becomes available, try to get the most out of your purchases. For example, you can spend $1,000 on four or five mountain bikes or the same amount of money can purchase several tents and sleeping bags that could allow for a camping trip for as many 20 individuals. Without compromising safety, look for the best deals on equipment. There are many used-equipment sales that larger universities may have from time to time, and there are also some outfitters that will have annual events where used equipment can be found at good prices. As equipment is purchased, it is important to develop an efficient method of inventorying and keeping up with all items. There are many software programs that exist or even a simple spreadsheet can serve most purposes. Another item that is growing in student popularity is the concept of letting students rent out certain pieces of equipment for their own private use. This can be tricky from an inventory perspective but will also allow for greater usage of the equipment and more exposure and satisfaction for the program. This satisfaction can lead to further financial support for your organization. At Wingate, we have designated one individual responsible for the checking out of equipment. We have a standardized form for equipment rentals with very specific policies that students must follow. The rental fees for equipment are very low, remember, the key is to increase student interest and usage, not make money. We try to make enough money with the rental program to provide for maintenance of the equipment.
Another aspect that will be necessary to address is room to store your growing amount of equipment. Storage space, as well as office space, is sometimes very difficult to obtain. Initially, we had equipment stored in several different building across campus. We were fortunate to obtain the old infirmary after a new building was constructed. It is important to keep accurate records of participants in your various programming efforts. This information can be of use when it comes to convincing administrators of the importance of finding office and storage space for your organization. These participant numbers are also critical when it comes to deciding budget allocations.
Get the word out
Another challenge is to generate as much student interest as possible. Use some of the budgeted monies to subsidize trips for students. For example, ORAC lead a ski trip and charged students $10 per person. The actual cost was more than $100 per person. Students were standing in line for one of the 30 spots to go on the trip.
It is also important to develop a brochure with all of the planned events for the upcoming semester. For example, our group usually takes three to five trips per semester. These include things such as a horseback camping trip, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, fly-fishing, mountain biking and whitewater rafting. All of these trips are subsidized by the ORAC budget, and costs are kept to a minimum for students. The group is also attempting to organize afternoon clinics. One afternoon every two weeks for a couple of hours, students are invited to attend a skill development session. These skills are later utilized on one of the organized trips.
Finally, don’t forget to use the expertise of your colleagues. There are many very successful outdoor recreation programs located at universities across the nation. Most are very willing to share their successes and failures regarding their programs.
These are a few of the issues that face a group attempting to organize outdoor programming at a college or university, especially at a small school. The challenges are never complete but ongoing. However, once these challenges are met, the overall benefit to the institution can result in a more satisfied student body and improved campus life.
Dr. Teague is chair of the Sport Sciences Department at Wingate University in Wingate, N.C. He teaches courses in outdoor recreation and sport and recreational facility design and management. He also serves as the faculty representative to the outdoor recreation adventure club. Dr. Teague can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.