By Kallie Klein

Kallie Klein, the author of this story, has previously taken Recreation and Outdoor Education classes. 

An ROE rafting adventure

Photo credit: Audrey Erickson

Western is widely known as one of the top universities for outdoor education, making the Recreation and Outdoor Education (ROE) program (under the banner of the Recreation, Exercise, and Sport Science Department) an important component of Western and the greater Gunnison Community. 

Our geographic surroundings make Western the perfect place for people to pursue their interests in leadership and the outdoors, whether as a guide or an outdoor educator. There are three different emphases that compose the Recreation and Outdoor Education major and minor offerings: Outdoor Leadership, Recreation, and Outdoor Environmental Education. Including a 3+2 option with a Master’s in Environmental Management or the Outdoor Industry MBA.  

The ROE program also provides specialized courses, affording opportunities in therapeutic and adaptive recreation, interpretation of natural and cultural history, teaching environmental education and other advanced courses that center around ecotourism. A primary goal of the program is to gain hands-on experience within the field through relationships with professors, community outreach internships, and the pursuit of certificates and field courses.

The defining aspect of the ROE programs is the focus on experiential learning and the utilization of the Gunnison Valley as a prime location to explore and experiment as both an educator and a student. Combining the classroom with the outdoors, the ROE program focuses on promoting happy, healthy and engaging lives. One of the integral facets of this department is the emphasis surrounding trips and student-led excursions as a way to promote and challenge them to use the leadership skills they learn in the classroom. 

An ROE climbing trip

Photo credit: Katie Hiser

Casey Ober, a senior in the ROE program, describes the trips as demonstrating “the reality of how leadership will be used in the field as we engage with each other in learning new skills. It also recognizes that students learn best not when we sit in a classroom, but rather when we put our hands to work and test and try the difficult challenges of leading in the outdoors!” 

From an alternative standpoint on the trips, Senior ROE Lecturer Matthew Ebbott shares his thoughts: “One of the biggest lessons we’ve seen in the past year is that recreation is a necessary part of life, something that is good for us physically and mentally, helps people understand themselves and others…we humans have a need to be in nature and natural landscapes.” 

One of the unique aspects of the program is its teachings around leadership. Across the ROE program, leadership is viewed as more of a philosophy, and instructors encourage students to develop a personalized leadership philosophy. Encouraging students to become listeners and leaners, using human connection and connection to nature as a way to lead.

Central to the ROE program is an emphasis and focus on building leaders and encouraging students to discover and develop their own leadership philosophy. Outside of the classroom, students are encouraged to lead through department trips, on campus through wilderness pursuits and wilderness-based orientation, and their impact on the community is found everywhere, working on the mountain, guiding fishing trips and rafting, volunteering, or coaching recreation sports leagues. 

Photo credit: Katie Hiser

They are also encouraged to carry on that leadership spirit in their personal life. “I have found that it is so important to bring good communication, passion and persistence in everything that I do,” said Ober, adding “After taking classes at Western, I learned that I needed to listen, elevate other voices, and empower confidence in followers.”

“Students can come to school here without any outdoor activity experience, get an introduction in our courses, and if they find something they love to do, go off and become highly skilled. Not only [in] the natural environment, but [with] the recreation businesses and nonprofits as well as the public land management agencies [that] have so much to offer, from teaching examples in class to internships and careers,” Professor Ebbott shares. Not only are students taught to care for the land on which their professions and passions depend, they are also encouraged to be involved in their community socially as a leader and a steward of the land.

In recent years, the outdoor and recreation industry has faced increased scrutiny that the field is not welcoming enough to marginalized communities, for a variety of reasons ranging from expensive gear to racism or outdated attitudes about gender and identity. 

Photo credit: Katie Hiser

In that vein, the ROE program has been making big strides to make the outdoors more inclusive through participating in a LGBTQ+ Outdoor Industry Equality Index (OEI). The goal of the OEI is to promote and increase representation, safe access and opportunity, and visibility for LGBTQ+ people in the outdoors.

The collaboration was organized through a capstone project from alumnus Evan Ferchau in partnership with Get Out and Trek, a community for LGBTQ+ outdoor enthusiasts. Get Out and Trek’s website says the assessment “evaluates an organization’s operations and business model impact on its workers, our community, and the industry. The OEI badges are awarded to help celebrate and inform others of one’s commitments and progress.” 

ROE is much more than a excuse to get outside for trips. Students are searching for a meaningful career. Professor Ebbott describes it best:

“Often we don’t know exactly what that is, but we know what we don’t want – hundreds of students have said to me ‘I don’t want to sit in a cubicle and stare at a computer all day,’ a sentiment that got ME into recreation! We want to be outdoors, doing an activity we love, and help other people enjoy it. Our students have a connection to the natural world, whether it’s through education or outdoor pursuits, and they come from all over the country to study in this place because of its natural environment. They know they want to have a job they enjoy that also makes a difference – in people’s lives, in the environment, in the world.”

Western’s Recreation and Outdoor Education program prepares students for the professional world and helps them to both make a positive impact, and become leaders in life, whether they choose to be a recreation professional or a business leader, ROE graduates are prepared for any path they may take in life.

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