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STORY PITCH: WVU Tech Adventure Recreation Program looks to build a new generation of capable adventure professionals

T. Grant Lewis, director of the WVU Tech Adventure Recreation Management program, standing on campus, gold and blue flags behind him.

As the outdoor recreation industry continues to grow in West Virginia and surrounding states, WVU Tech is looking to turn a passion for the Great Outdoors into a full-time career.

The college is now running a new degree program in Adventure Recreation Management. The curriculum is hands-on. The classroom is often outdoors. And the completed degree will open up doors to graduates in a variety of fields.

The four-year program pairs technical knowledge of adventure recreation activities – everything from hiking and biking to skiing and paddlesports – with a background in business management.

Students in the program will also become certified as an instructor or guide in one of the program’s four activity pillars: rock climbing, whitewater rafting and paddling, mountain biking and aerial and challenge courses. Certifications courses prepare students to earn their certifications from accredited sources, like the American Canoe Association and the American Mountain Guides Association.

On the business side, students will explore everything from HR and staffing to budgeting, grant writing, logistics, facilities and risk management.

Program graduates will be eligible to work in a variety of industries and organizations, including adventure recreation companies (whitewater rafting and skiing), college and university recreation programs, K-12 programs, the adventure travel industry, municipal parks and recreation services and state or national parks.

The program received recognition from Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine as the Best Outdoor Recreation Program in the region.

Quotes from T. Grant Lewis, Director and Teaching Assistant Professor of the program

On the hands-on nature of the program:
“This isn’t a theoretical degree. It can’t be. Our expectation is that when students graduate, they’ve done the work, they’ve been in contact with professionals and they’re ready to go. We want graduates to be able to back up what they say they can do. They’ll be able to know what they’re looking for in terms of resources and staff to successfully run a program.”

On guide or instructor certification as a component of the program:
“There are a couple different philosophies when it comes to field experience. Some programs require certifications in a bunch of different areas. And, of course, that makes a graduate more marketable. But taking that approach doesn’t always lead to a solid foundation in each of those areas. Our standpoint is that we want you to be an instructor in one discipline because that means you’re really spending the time crafting a skillset. The required experience hours are something students will do outside of their classwork, which will set them up with real field experience leading others.”

On who will succeed in the program and in the industry:
“Maybe they grew up biking or paddling. Maybe they didn’t. I was a late bloomer. Or they can be full-time professionals. Either way, they’re going to get exposure to the industry right away.”

“Most people think that individuals who work in outdoor recreation are major extroverts. In reality, not all of us are. Our industry is so wide in terms of who comes in, who we work with as clients and what we do.”

“One of the philosophies of the program is that we want to elevate the profession and we want students to help drive the elevation of the profession. From that standpoint, our ideal student is simply someone who is open-minded. Someone who recognizes that there are many ways to do things and someone who is passionate about being part of the profession.”

“One of my students told me her fear is that when people see the term ‘adventure,’ they think to themselves that they’re not adventurous. There’s a space for outdoor recreation at every level. The career doesn’t have to be in adventure. Not all of us will be running class four rapids. There’s room for outdoor recreation in K-12, at places like the YMCA and at all ‘adventure’ levels.”

On networking and community-building:
“Relationships are at the core at what we do. There are a lot of activities that you can do alone, but there are many that require you to be part of a community. That community can be your class, but it can also be the rock climbing or mountain biking communities. So what is a rock climbing community? And how do we interact with that community? That can be very different based on what you potentially want to do. So we focus on having students engage in those communities and ask questions that will help them better understand those groups.”

On the career outlook for adventure recreation professionals:
“That’s what every wants to know. What can I do with this education? In the big picture, the outdoor recreation industry, based on various studies, is between a $400 and $800 billion-dollar industry. That runs from your Fayetteville-based companies that specifically do whitewater rafting and paddle boarding to colleges and universities who have added adventure recreation to their co-curricular offerings. There are tourism resorts, such as skiing and snowboarding. Because of climate change you’re getting shorter seasons, so those places are diversifying; adding mountain biking, hiking and ziplining. Travel adventure is a big field. Then there are the traditional, municipal parks and rec systems. K-12 schools. Residential and year-round camps. One of the untapped markets that exists is high-end resorts and spas. They’re hiring more and more professionals to lead clients kayaking, mountain biking and on nature walks. The cruise industry employs ziplining and adventure courses. The National Park Service offers a lot more than forestry and ranger positions. Their breadth of jobs in humungous. Then there’s interpretive service. Most people think of that as environmental science, but it’s also about the history and culture of a region and how it ties to outdoor recreation. Graduates will also be able to work for retailers and outfitters. Youth ministries employee adventure professionals. And there’s therapeutic. On one end of that you have working with at-risk or adjudicated youth and adults. On the other, it’s accessibility and adaptive sports for organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project. This is where you see the merging of outdoor recreation with psychology and healthcare.”

“By preparing our students to work with a lot of variables, we’re teaching them to create an experience rather than an activity. When you start bringing in the cultural and historical aspects, it gives people reason to come back again and again. We can train anybody to provide activities, and that’s great. But we really want our students to be able to take things to the next level.”

On why Beckley is so well-suited for this program:
“There are incredible resources available here. When people think about outdoor recreation, locations that come to mind are Asheville, North Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Boulder, Colorado; Boise, Idaho. They’re great places, but the concentration of what we have here is just immense. Within an hour drive of Beckley you have access to over 800 miles of whitewater. You have access to more than 1,500 climbing sites, and some would put that at 3,000. It really is world-class. We have world-class athletes who come here to train. We have four seasons, and this is one of the places in the country where you can do outdoor recreation activities 365 days a year. We have access to all of these resources, but we’re not far from city centers either. If you need some time in a big city, pick one. We have Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Columbus just a short drive away.”

“There are niches here that we have in the adventure recreation space. You hear people say that they went out west to ski and just never came back. Here, they come for the mountain biking or the rafting and they never leave.”

Additional media and resources
Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine: When your office is the Great Outdoors: WVU Tech bets big on adventure tourism with Adventure Recreation Management degree program
WVU Tech Adventure Recreation Management Program