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East Tennessee State University Raises the Bar for Outdoor Education 

Major Adventure

It’s a Monday morning, and Megan Fisher is leading a hiking group through the Colorado Plateau, an area of red rock monoliths and dramatic canyons. As a Lead Program Instructor at Keystone Science School in Keystone, Colo., this is Fisher’s office—a wild, wonderful place where she teaches students to appreciate the natural world.  

“We’re an outdoor education nonprofit dedicated to introducing kids to earth science through exploration and observation,” says Fisher, who owes this “really awesome gig” to her alma mater, East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, Tenn.

Megan Fisher owes her career in outdoor education to East Tennessee State University. Megan Fisher leads a student ski trip in Colorado. Photos courtesy of Megan Fisher.

Named this year’s Top Adventure College by the readers of Blue Ridge Outdoors, ETSU is a mecca for 20-somethings who love to hike, bike, climb, camp, paddle, and generally be outside. That’s thanks in part to the school’s proximity to scenic destinations like Roan Mountain State Park and the Cherokee National Forest.

“ETSU is located in an amazing part of the Appalachian Mountains,” says Kari Albarado, director of campus recreation. “There are so many trails, lakes, rivers, caves, and waterfalls found in this region.” 

But the university’s appeal is about more than geography; it’s also about culture. As Albarado explains, ETSU goes to great lengths to ensure that every student—regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or ability—is afforded the opportunity to get outside.  

“Our motto is ‘You Belong Here,’ and we believe that everyone can participate in our programs and services,” she notes. “Our goal is to provide a variety of trips throughout the academic semester that are for beginners as well as more experienced outdoor enthusiasts.”

Fisher discovered the inclusivity of ETSU’s outdoor programming during her freshman year. A native of Bristol—a small town straddling the Virginia-Tennessee state line—Fisher came to Johnson City in 2015 hoping to earn her B.S. in Dental Hygiene. But after taking a few classes in chemistry and anatomy, she began to question her trajectory. “I just wasn’t excelling in my program,” she reveals.

Instead, Fisher felt more at home in the university’s Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC), a campus hub where students can rock climb, rent outdoor gear and bikes, find local guides, and sign up for group outings. “The OAC was where I realized that I love being outside,” says Fisher, who soon switched her major to Sport Management—a decision that would set the tone for the rest of her career. 

“I wasn’t sure where the degree would take me,” she shares. “But I decided to pursue what felt right.”

Offered through the Department of Sport, Exercise, Recreation, and Kinesiology, the program helped her nurture soft skills such as communication, leadership, and problem-solving, as well as industry-specific skills like natural resource interpretation, camp management, and wilderness emergency medicine. 

“My classes were very inspirational to my journey,” says Fisher, who also had an opportunity to intern with Tennessee State Parks and lead overnight trips with the OAC. “These experiences got me to where I am today.”

Sarah H. Standridge, an assistant professor of Sport and Recreation Management, agrees that the major helps students springboard into meaningful vocations. 

“We have alumni in a wide range of career fields: community recreation, commercial and resort recreation, resource management, nonprofits, event planning, and state and national parks,” she says. “If you have a love for the outdoors, enjoy helping people, and are interested in bettering your community, we can help you customize your education and find a career that you’re passionate about.”    

But students need not be aspiring park rangers or ski lodge managers to enjoy the great outdoors. In addition to Sport Management, ETSU offers dozens of other nature-centric undergraduate degrees—from Microbiology to Environmental Health. The university also offers several graduate programs, including an M.S. in Geosciences and a graduate certificate in Nature-Based Therapy.   

Regardless of major, all are welcome to run on the Woods and Trail System, blow off some steam on the Basler Team Challenge Course, and push their limits during group adventures hosted by the OAC. 

“Our programs are growth-based,” says Eric Payne, assistant director of Outdoor Adventure. “We encourage participants to go beyond what they think they can do, both mentally and physically. Much of the time, they are capable of so much more than they think.”

That’s certainly been the case for Fisher. Though she was hesitant to change her path back in 2015, stepping outside her comfort zone has led her to a rich, fulfilling life. 

“If it weren’t for ETSU, I would probably be working inside at a desk,” says Fisher. “I definitely wouldn’t be doing work that I love and am excited about.” 

Blue Ridge Outdoors’ annual Top Adventure College contest places 32 colleges and universities against each other in a bracket-style competition. This year, more than 7,000 votes were cast by readers. East Tennessee State University took the first-place title based on academic curricula, outdoor programming, eco-friendly initiatives, and access to adventure. The runner-up was Maryville College, and the contest was sponsored by LOWA. 

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