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2020 Adventure College Contest Winners

A West Virginia University student on one of the many climbing routes in the area. Photo courtesy of WVU.

March Madness was certainly missed across the South and beyond this year, but there was still an opportunity to root for your favorite schools in Blue Ridge Outdoors’ annual Top Adventure College Contest. Earlier this spring, readers, students, and alumni voted for their top small (less than 6,000 students) and large (more than 6,000 students) schools in the region, and the results are in. Read on for more on how the two winning schools in the Blue Ridge are taking advantage of their location to give students access to outdoor recreation and environmental opportunities.

Lees McCrae - Top Adventure College
Students walk the Millpond Bridge on Lees-McRae’s campus. Photo courtesy of Lees-Mcrae

Small School
Lees-McRae College (Banner Elk, N.C.)

Located in the mountains of western North Carolina, students at Lees-McRae enjoy easy access to a wide range of outdoor recreation opportunities, from ski resorts and the Blue Ridge Parkway to national forests and parks. 

Lees-McRae’s Outdoor Recreation Management Program helps students prepare for a career in the outdoor industry with classes in technical skills, risk management, environmental ethics, and more. A majority of the classes also feature a field component, allowing students to put their skills to the test with local trips.

Deana Acklin graduated from Lees-McRae in the 90s and recently returned to her alma mater to work as an adjunct instructor in the outdoor recreation major and as the outdoor programs coordinator. Acklin said she ultimately decided to attend Lees-McRae because of its location and access to the outdoors.

“There’s so much for the kids to do that is just minutes from our campus,” she said. “It’s a great stress reliever. I would often go up on the parkway when I was a student. That’s where I would go to sit, study, and prepare for exams when I just needed to get out of the dorm. That was really life changing for me. It gives you that break that you need.”

Within the outdoor recreation program, students learn the fundamentals of business, adventure recreation, and group facilitation. Students looking to specialize their skills can add a minor for more outdoor certifications and experience, including Ski Industry Business & Instruction in partnership with Beech Mountain Ski Resort, Wilderness Medicine, or Cycling Studies.

“It gives our students the opportunity to go in so many different directions, whether they work for outdoor companies, city and municipality programs, schools, or to enhance tourism,” Acklin said. “There’s just so much exposure to so many different things. It really lets the students test the waters and see where their passions may fall. It gives them a chance to then pursue a career doing something they truly love.”

Outside of the classroom, students have an array of options, from formal participation on the cycling, climbing, or ski and snowboard teams to weekend trips in the area. Students also have the option to rent outdoor equipment, including mountain bikes, tents, bouldering pads, and more, to create their own adventures.  

A number of departments, including outdoor recreation, health and wellness, and biology also collaborate on extended trips across the country and around the world.

“The outdoors is at the heart of so many things that make Lees-McRae College special,” said Katie Wall, an assistant professor and coordinator for the Outdoor Recreation Management program. “Winning the Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine’s Top Adventure College again is incredibly meaningful for our students, faculty, staff, coaches, alumni, and friends.”

Runner up: Sweet Briar College (Sweet Briar, Va.)

Large School
West Virginia University (Morgantown, W.Va.)

Adventure is right out the back door at West Virginia University. Between the three campuses, students have access to thousands of climbing routes and hundreds of miles of whitewater within an hour and a half drive from town. 

Dr. Nicolas Zegre, a whitewater kayaker and WVU hydrology professor, is compiling data on how frequently rivers can be paddled nationally.

“If paddling is your priority, then West Virginia is the place to be now and, in the future,” said Zegre, who moved from Oregon to West Virginia. “Whether you live in Morgantown, Fayetteville, or Beckley, classic runs such as the Lower Big Sandy (Class IV and V), the Cheat (Class I-IV), the New (Class I-IV), and the Gauley (Class III-V) run between 180 to 365 days a year and can be paddled after work.”

At the Morgantown campus, students get hands-on storytelling experience capturing whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and mountain biking, while learning journalism principles through the Sports and Adventure Media major. A recent Trail Accelerator grant will allow students in the Landscape Architecture program to work with IMBA to design and build mountain biking trails in the area.

Incoming first-years have the option to take part in Adventure WV, a student-led outdoor orientation program before classes start. Jennifer Stanchfield, a renowned experiential educator, said the Adventure WV program is one of the top outdoor education programs in the world.

“I consider it a model program for the field not only because of the fantastic facilities in a beautiful location but also because of the quality holistic programming that has been intentionally and incrementally developed over the years based on community need and ongoing research,” she said. “They take the time to cultivate thoughtful, effective facilitators through ongoing training not only on technical skills and outdoor education but also on experiential philosophy, brain research, meaningful reflection, program design, sequencing, and inclusive practices.”

On campus resources include an outdoor rec center, camping facilities, and the only university-managed zipline canopy tour.

The WVU Tech campus in Beckley recently added an Adventure Recreation Management program, which won Best Educational Outdoor Rec Program in BRO’s 2020 Best of the Blue Ridge Awards. Students in the major learn both the technical and management skills needed to run a guiding business in the outdoor industry, including rock climbing, mountain biking, and whitewater paddling. 

“Where we are is world-class,” said assistant professor Dave Bernier. “Our classroom ends up being in those places. We’re climbing in the New River Gorge. We’re working with different whitewater operations on the New River and Gauley River.”

Runner up: Appalachian State University (Boone, N.C.)

Small School Finalists
University of North Carolina Asheville (Asheville, N.C.)
Sewanee: The University of the South (Sewanee, Tenn.)
Maryville College (Maryville, Tenn.)
Large School Finalists
East Tennessee State University (Johnson City, Tenn.)
Western Carolina University (Cullowhee, N.C.)
Liberty University (Lynchburg, Va.)

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