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Adventure Education

Outdoor studies are part of the curriculum at Tennessee’s Maryville College

FOR FOUR YEARS, THE CRAWFORD House served as a home away from home for Becca Roberson as she studied biology at Maryville College. The house, with its climbing tower, bouldering wall, and wide-open green space, holds Mountain Challenge, a private outdoor adventure company that has partnered with the college for over 35 years, providing students the opportunity to plan, lead, and facilitate trips for other students and community members. 

Roberson, who graduated in May, said her time spent as a staff member gave her skills she’s using as she currently pursues a career in wildlife biology. “Since it is so student-led, a lot of the problems that we face, we have to figure out on our own,” she said. “The skills I have from Mountain Challenge, from working outdoors with other people, knowing how to problem solve, and how to lead things, is vital to what I’m going to do in the future.” 

Students have a wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities within an hour of their campus, from hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to paddling the French Broad, Holston, and Tennessee rivers. 

Throughout the pandemic, Roberson witnessed many of the 1,200 students on the eastern Tennessee campus rally around the program. “Mountain Challenge served as this little lifeboat for people to be able to get outside, do a lot of stress relief, and hang out with people in a safe way during the pandemic,” she said. Students have a wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities within an hour of their campus, from hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to paddling the French Broad, Holston, and Tennessee rivers.  

At Maryville, this year’s winner of Blue Ridge Outdoors’ annual Top Adventure College contest, students can pursue more than 60 majors, including Outdoor Studies and Tourism, Environmental Science, and Sustainability Studies. For Alex Thompson, a rising senior, his classes as an outdoor studies major have given him a deeper insight into how groups function in order to better facilitate a safe and fun experience outside. 

Thompson’s favorite trip that he’s led so far was a hike through a foot of snow at Frozen Head State Park. “I like going out and doing those types of things, especially in more adverse conditions,” he said. “I like the stories more than I like being warm.” After graduation next year, Thompson hopes to get certified to guide a variety of outdoor trips and thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. As Mountain Challenge fellows, Roberson and Thompson were both awarded a scholarship to develop their leadership skills and serve on staff during their time at the college. 

Since graduating from the college in 2003, Tyson Murphy has seen Maryville’s outdoor program gain more resources, including the addition of the scholarship. Murphy currently serves as the program director for Mountain Challenge, adjunct instructor in the outdoor studies and tourism department, and head cross-country coach. 

“They may not be the best climber, the best cyclist, the greatest paddler, but if they’ve developed some habits that allow them to reap the physiological and psychological benefits of being in the natural world, then that’s a win for us.”

The emphasis in the outdoor studies program has shifted, he said, to give students a better sense of the broader issues related to reconnecting people and the natural world. It’s about more than just going out and leading trips; it’s about forming meaningful connections. “The further we progress in a world that is more screen driven and technology driven, [there are] issues with green space and limited access to having safe outdoor spaces for people to recreate,” Murphy said.

Ultimately, Murphy hopes students leave the program and the college inspired as the next wave of ambassadors and teachers, leading the charge in demonstrating best practices and caring for these spaces. “They may not be the best climber, the best cyclist, the greatest paddler, but if they’ve developed some habits that allow them to reap the physiological and psychological benefits of being in the natural world, then that’s a win for us.” 

Blue Ridge Outdoors’ annual Top Adventure College contest placed 32 schools against each other in a bracket-style competition and received a flood of online voting from fans of their favorite schools. The colleges were chosen based on academic curricula, outdoor clubs, commitment to environmental initiatives, and access to adventure. The runner up was West Virginia University, and the contest was sponsored by Adventures on the Gorge. 

Cover photo: Maryville students enjoy the views from an overlook. Photo courtesy of Maryville College.

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