Go OutsideVirginia Commonwealth University Launches New Outdoor Leadership Certificate

Virginia Commonwealth University Launches New Outdoor Leadership Certificate

Growing program offers students professional skills and adventure access

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) of Richmond, Va., is taking its outdoor education and professional development to a new level with the addition of the Outdoor Leadership Certificate. First made available this past fall, the certificate is designed to prepare undergraduate students for a variety of professional outdoor leadership positions via hands-on experience and training.  

The certificate is offered through the school’s Center for Environmental Studies in partnership with VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP), broadening a relationship that has grown over eight years of collaborative programming, while taking advantage of Richmond’s unique access to the outdoors in an urban setting. Students will be given the tools to pursue leadership roles in land management, outdoor recreation, field research, environmental education, ecotourism, and other careers involving the outdoors.

Two photos of a swift water rescue drills. Left photo shows students practicing rope ties on land with multiple canoes and rafts. Right photo shows a student throwing a rescue rope, also known as a throw bag.

Students learn swift water safety. Photos by James Vonesh

“This certificate is designed for a broad range of individuals, well beyond those in our existing program and it is our goal to recruit as broadly as possible for participants in this program,” Rodney Dyer, director of VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies, said. 

In creating the certificate, administrators focused on core competencies such as project planning, risk assessment, group facilitation, experiential instruction, and field skills such as navigation and first aid. 

A man draws on a white board as he teaches a group of students about swift water rescue tactics.
Karl Schmidt teaching students river safety. Photos by James Vonesh

“VCU is unique because we have this really robust outdoor program where students leave with an impressive new skill set and leadership experience, but there’s no actual degree for someone,” Karl Schmidt, outdoor adventure coordinator for the OAP, said. “It feels like leaving here with a dual major, and so the certificate is like an extension of that.”

The expansion will utilize existing courses, like Footprints on the James, which explores the intersection of human and natural history along the James River. Other classes have included expeditions in Chilean Patagonia and on the Salmon River in Idaho. There is also an upcoming trip to the Everglades. 

Six students laughing and splashing as they try to balance on a single paddle board on a body of water in the summer time.
Two photos of groups of students paddling down a calm river.
Students on a Footprints on the James expedition. Photos by James Vonesh

Students gain skills in the outdoor program that can be used to pursue multiple career paths, combining technical skills and theories in the classroom. “One thing I’ve realized over the years is that the outdoors is the vehicle but, ultimately, the goal is more of the community piece and the learning, the education, and the self-growth that happens while out there,” Joey Parent, assistant director of the OAP said. “We are fortunate enough to be able to go and do it in a really pretty place. “ 

Beyond professional development, the program also highlights the importance of access to the outdoors, especially as society continues to navigate a pandemic. “I think the pandemic is a case study for why the outdoors are important,” Schmidt said. “Having an avenue for attention restoration and allowing people to feel not like a zombie locked in their house or dorm room is a key example of that.” 

Six photos of students identifying wildlife in a heavily forested and green area. Bright orange mushrooms, a large green fuzzy caterpillar, a snail on a log, and a bright yellow and decorated caterpillar can be seen.
Students identify wildlife and plants on an overnight backpacking trip. Photos by James Vonesh

Courses also place emphasis on endangered natural resources, as the pressures of the climate crisis worsen. “Their natural resources are on fire, rocks are tumbling off of mountains, and there’s not enough water in the rivers,” Schmidt added. “I think that there’s a lot of value in giving people here a relationship with a watershed and with landscape and things that are going to become increasingly more important as climate change accelerates.”

Schmidt also said another major goal of the program is to increase diversity and inclusivity in the outdoors by creating new avenues for participation. “When I leave this job one day, I would really love to have a woman of color take my position and not another bearded white guy.”    

As the program takes off, faculty are looking to the future possibility of a full outdoor leadership degree. While that would require more classes to be added, it’s a similar model that the environmental studies degree followed. “That is the exciting part to me, working with the faculty and staff of both OAP and CES on how we can push the boundaries,” Dyer said. “Think outside the box, and provide unique opportunities to the broadest population of students.” 

Group of students smile in front a trailer that is hauling two inflatable red rafts.
Photo by James Vonesh

Cover Photo by James Vonesh


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