The great outdoors classroom

(Kelsey Dayton, Star-Tribune)
AJ Smith, Katie ODonahue, and Nick Nagy practice crossing the Popo Agie...
Story by Kelsey Dayton
Star-Tribune
May 12, 2012
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LANDER — Jennifer Adams held the rope, leaned back and stepped over the rock ledge.

Rappelling on the Granite Buttress in Sinks Canyon was just another day in the classroom for the Central Wyoming College student and one of the reasons why she left Florida and moved to Riverton.

Adams, 22, arrived in Wyoming for the first time in winter 2011 to take a semester course with the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS.

She’d been in school for seven years and was about 10 credits shy of a degree in anthropology, or environmental science or English. She wanted away from the classroom to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.

Wyoming was in the midst of an epic winter when she arrived.

“I thought I drove all the way to Alaska to be honest,” she said. “I had no idea there was going to be that much snow.”

After a semester with NOLS, where she skied and climbed and camped, she planned to return home. But a friend was enrolled at CWC and told her about the outdoor education and leadership program and convinced her to return to Wyoming for school.

Adams is one of a growing number of students from across the country, drawn to Riverton — of all places — to earn a degree in the community college’s outdoor education program.

* * *

About five years ago there were only 30 students in the program. Now there are about 70, said Darran Wells, Assistant Professor of Outdoor Education and Leadership at the college.

Some of the classes had only two or three students. Now the most popular courses, like backcountry skiing or outdoor rock climbing, have waiting lists.

This year, almost 80 percent of the students in the program came from outside Wyoming, Wells said. The program even occasionally attracts international students.

It has become Central Wyoming College’s biggest draw for out-of-state students, said Mark Nordeen, the Dean of Arts and Science at the college.

And a big part of the college’s burgeoning reputation as a leader in teaching outdoor education is due to Wells’ efforts.

“It’s a fighter pilot recruiting other fighter pilots,” Nordeen said.

Wells grew up mountain biking in Texas. In college he studied philosophy and ethics which drew him to the Peace Corps. His service in Africa led him to NOLS, which at the time had an Africa branch, the continent for which he hoped one day to return. But while working stateside for the company, he earned a scholarship for his master’s degree and wrote his thesis on increasing partnerships between colleges and NOLS. When he took a job at CWC to teach in the fledgling outdoor education program, strengthening the college’s ties to NOLS was intrinsic.

CWC now offers an associate of arts in outdoor education and leadership, often pursued by those planning on additional school and training. It also offers an associate of applied science in outdoor recreation, primarily for students who plan to start working for a guide service or an outdoor agency immediately when finished with school, Wells said.

Students in the CWC programs learn about growing career opportunities and teaching theories and techniques like tuning skis or packing a horse.

In required classes, students learn about land use, regulations and permits and study leadership theory and risk management. They are required to take a wilderness first responder course and can choose from electives like white water rafting, back country skiing and mountain biking.

Wells is able to pull renowned instructors from the area, including those who work for NOLS.

New this year, students are also required to take either a NOLS semester course or a CWC expedition class, where this summer they will spend time in the Wind River Mountains and attempt to climb Gannett Peak.

The relationship between NOLS and CWC is symbiotic, said Bruce Palmer, marketing director at NOLS.

NOLS’ reputation for teaching students outdoor skills is renowned internationally. Students learn about CWC when searching the NOLS website. CWC students can also use federal financial aid to help pay for NOLS courses which can cost more than $10,000 a semester.

And CWC allows students something NOLS doesn’t — a degree, Palmer said.

Outdoor education requires a combination of hands-on immersion in the field, which NOLS offers, as well as classroom skills and teaching practice which the college provides, he said.

* * *

Many students in the program are older and have worked in other fields or already have degrees, Wells said. This year, the students’ ages range from 17 to 50 years old, Wells said.

People don’t realize they can make a living doing something outside, or they go into an office job and find themselves unfulfilled, Wells said.

Jonathan Rasbach, 31, was a high school teacher in Michigan. He’d always wanted to teach, but after several years teaching history and government, he found himself disillusioned as focus in the classroom became more and more about teaching to standardized tests.

Rasbach wasn’t outdoorsy. But after a particularly hard school year he decided to spend his summer out West camping, visiting National Parks and attending raft guide school.

The next two summers he took kids on wilderness trips. Then he quit his job and decided to pursue outdoor education.

“I was drawn to outdoor leadership and recreation because you can take people into a classroom that’s intrinsically exciting,” he said.

Rasbach already had a bachelor’s and credits toward his master’s degree, but was willing to go back to school for the program. While it was NOLS that originally drew him to Wyoming, he ended up not taking a NOLS course and instead did all his credits through CWC, which was less expensive, but still allowed him to work with NOLS instructors learning skills like rock climbing, he said.

“You can’t learn those things by reading a book,” he said.

Rasbach has another semester before he graduates. Then he’ll work with a wilderness ranch as part of an internship.

Eventually Rasbach would like to own a business. He’s not an adrenaline junkie and hopes to focus on the spiritual part of being outdoors.

“I hopefully can teach some life lessons that aren’t part of state standards,” he said.

* * *

As the program continues to grow, the college is looking at moving the outdoor education program to Lander, where many of the outdoor practical classes are taught.

Lander also offers easy access to rugged peaks and world class climbing. As early as next January, some student housing will be available in the Sinks Canyon Center in cabins currently occupied by the Wilderness Medicine Institute which is moving to a new facility.

On Friday the program will graduate 15 students, including Mike Hepler, who about two years ago didn’t even know exactly where Wyoming was located.

Hepler, now 32, was working in information technology, stressed and hated his job. He realized one of the things he loved most was the outdoors — every opening day of trout season he fished with dad and grandfather. When his friends went to the shore to relax in the summer, he went camping in the Pennsylvania mountains.

He discovered CWC through NOLS and discovered a way to earn a degree and also learn outdoor skills.

“NOLS taught you the skills and fundamentals and CWC taught you how to transfer that knowledge to students,” he said.

Hepler won’t be walking in the CWC graduation ceremony Friday. He’s landed the ultimate graduation coup — a job. He is now working for NOLS in Teton Valley, Idaho.

Kelsey Dayton

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OGDEN NATURE CENTER

The Ogden Nature Center is located at 966 W. 12th St. in Ogden. For more information, visit www.ogdennaturecenter.org or call 801-621-7595.

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