Nature Versus Nurture
The ORC faces leadership drought
by Eliza Stein
It’s the second day of spring, and light shines through the windows of the Outdoor Education Center. Perched on rolling chairs in the back sunroom, the Outdoor Recreation Committee (ORC) co-chairs trade spring break stories. The Day Trips Coordinator lounges in a beanbag in the corner, and the Social Chair checks her email. Just as the co-chairs suggest that the meeting get started, the Head of Outreach comes running through the door, apologizing for losing track of time. No problem, no rush here.
The meeting is easy and over quickly. Next block’s Spring Celebration is well underway and everyone has received their tasks to complete before next week’s meeting. But no one leaves, even after they are thanked for coming. It’s quiet for a moment.
“Has anyone applied to be co-chair next year?” asks the head of outreach, glancing from one co-chair to the other.
The application went out a few weeks ago. Unlike last year, there have been no murmurs about who is going to apply. No one can put a finger on a stand-out leader in the club. One of the current co-chairs is a junior. He’s tired and quiet.
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The Outdoor Recreation Committee has not always been a part of the broader college department designated as “Outdoor Education.” The spirit of the outdoors at Colorado College began with the college’s inception, but Andrew Wallace (‘12) traced the origins of the ORC to the establishment of the block plan in the early 1970s. Student run, the club was originally supervised by Colorado College’s Leisure Program Committee and allotted a $3,000 budget for the 1972-1973 academic year. Under the Leisure Program Committee, the ORC “was developed with the stated goal ‘to both enhance ecological and aesthetic sensitivity to the outdoors and to re-enforce the basic skills and concerns of outdoor living,’ Wallace writes in his study.
While it received funding from the Leisure Program Committee, its supervision was limited. Club leaders independently organized all events and outings. According to Wallace, the ORC grew steadily both in number of participants and outings over the next several years.
Somewhere along the way, a new college department was created: Outdoor Education. Outdoor Education also became the supervising body of the ORC. It seemed that, all of a sudden, student leaders were being required to submit detailed trip proposals, advocate for the purposes of their trips beyond just “fun” and pass a series of rigourous leader trainings.
Today, the outdoors culture at CC continues to thrive, but while most of this culture used to be contained within the ORC, a new outdoors subculture currently exists. These are the students who don’t want to jump through hoops just to go climbing for the weekend. They want to enjoy the spontaneity of the outdoors, they want to go with their friends, and sometimes, they just want to be able to bring some beer.
While a handful of experienced outdoorsmen and women at CC have found solace in the ORC, many others exist on the fringes. They want nothing to do with the club or its supervising department, Outdoor Education. As the ORC, with the help from Outdoor Education and the college, attempts to increase the accessibility of the outdoors for all, they lack support from some of the most skilled leaders at CC. Despite efforts from the club and the department to provide resources and incentives, the 2015-2016 academic year, like the years preceding it, has experienced a student leadership drought. Where, and when, did things start to go wrong?
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Mike Edmonds is in his twenty-fourth year as Dean of Students at Colorado College and his tenth as Vice President of Student Life. He has witnessed more of the evolution of the ORC and Outdoor Education than almost any other faculty member. And he has also been a major player in this evolution.
In the 1990s, Dean Edmonds visited Earlham College in Indiana and saw a relationship between curricular and co-curricular that he hadn’t ever been exposed to. Edmonds left the college thinking, “If this landlocked institution is having a broader engagement of students in the outdoors than a college in Colorado, then we need to do something different.”
Enter Steve Crosby, the first director of Outdoor Education at Colorado College. Crosby arrived in 2004 with a Masters of Education and years working at the Colorado Outward Bound School and Colorado Mountain College. With the support of Edmonds and others (at this point Outdoor Education was a major endeavor backed by the President’s Office), Crosby helped guide Colorado College’s outdoor program to a new institutionalized department: Outdoor Education.
For the next eight years, Crosby held his ground as the only full-time staff member in Outdoor Education, supervising the still student-run ORC and organizing all-college programs such as the New Student Orientation Priddy Experience, Ahlberg Gear House, and climbing gym. Crosby had numerous successes during his time at CC, but it was more work than one person could handle alone.
Crosby left the college in 2011—for almost a year, Outdoor Education had no director. As professional staff fluttered in and out of the small, glass-walled office in upstairs Worner, uncertainty began to creep into the minds of students.
“There was so much turnover,” recalls Neal Smeltzer, who was a junior when Crosby left. It was during this time that students began to wonder if the ORC was going to make it. The climbing gym was shut down for a brief period because of a series of minor accidents. At the time, the climbing gym was all bouldering—none of the top rope belay that exists today. Students could come in and out of the gym at all hours, often times bringing along alcohol. “We’re lucky nothing really bad happened,” says Smeltzer.
During his sophomore year, Smeltzer completed the ORC Leader Training course over spring break, a requirement for all students wishing to lead ORC trips. Although he had grown up spending time in the outdoors, this was his first experience leading others. He loved it. His senior year, Smeltzer was elected ORC co-chair with fellow student McKenzie Woolley. They found themselves attempting to justify to the new staff the value of the ORC as an independent, student-run organization.
The summer after Smeltzer’s graduation in 2012, he was hired by Outdoor Education as a paraprofessional. He and Assistant Director Elizabeth Putter were joined by the second-ever Director of Outdoor Education: Ryan Hammes. With four years of experience leading for Colorado Outward Bound School, an M.S. in Physical Education with an emphasis in adventure education, and a nine-page long experiential transcript, Hammes was an ideal candidate for the job.
“I was tasked with really enhancing Outdoor Education and making it as open to as many students as possible,” says Hammes.
In 2012, Hammes, Putter, and Smeltzer made up the full-time staff of Outdoor Education. Eight years after its founding, the department was growing rapidly. Colorado College’s El Pomar Sports Center had just been renovated, and it now possessed the spiffy new Ritt Kellogg Climbing Gym. There was opportunity for a professionally run climbing gym, which the school hadn’t yet seen.
“With my background,” says Hammes, “I saw quite a bit of gaps in how loosely run everything was. There weren’t any consistent policies and procedures, training was all over the place. There were a lot of areas to enhance the program.”
He and his colleagues began by implementing the Ahlberg Leadership Institute (ALI). Smeltzer, now an experienced outdoor educator, wrote several iterations of curricula in his first years as staff. He tells me that his favorite part of the job was meeting with students to determine what was and wasn’t working within the ORC and Outdoor Education. Smeltzer was also in charge of supervising the Ahlberg Gear House.
“I was patient in terms of the change that happened,” says Smeltzer. “There was lots of push back at the beginning, so it was important that I didn’t just wipe everything out at the beginning. I was getting pressure from both sides—things needed to happen, but I also had to make sure there was student buy-in.”
Soon Elizabeth Putter was replaced by Patricia Chan, another experienced outdoor educator to fill the assistant director role. The Ritt Kellogg Memorial Fund provided resources to hire Chris Dickson, who oversaw the Ritt Kellogg Expedition Fund and Ritt Kellogg Educational Fund—opportunities for Colorado College students to receive grants for backcountry expeditions and skills trainings. As Outdoor Education grew, the Ahlberg Gear House became better stocked, the Ritt Kellogg Climbing Gym hired more student employees and more and more student leaders progressed through the ALI. Outdoor Education, in conjunction with the ORC, was sending out a higher number of trips than ever before. But more importantly, the accessibility of the outdoors, now a cornerstone of the college, was improving tremendously. As Outdoor Education grew, however, so did resistance from students.
“I gotta be honest, I’m surprised I’m still here,” says Hammes. “Those first two years were so hard. And any time change happens, people are hesitant. There were some students who totally bought it, but there were others who just said, ‘screw this.’”
A large number of students interviewed have been of the “screw this” mindset, although none are willing to go on the record. They speak of the good old days of the ORC, when it was entirely student-run and “the stoke was high.”
“Students involved in the ORC were a close-knit community who felt passionately about getting younger students out, but it was not as deliberately organized as the ORC became,” says Richard Forbes, an ORC leader who graduated in 2013. Nor was it as safety-oriented.
“The way that trips were run before was not at all up to industry standard,” says Hammes. “We got lucky.”
There were no policy or procedure manuals for students to use as guidance. And whenever there are drugs and alcohol on trips, there’s liability.
However, whether or not there was truly a culture of drugs and alcohol on ORC trips before Hammes is unclear. Lucy Gamble, also a 2013 graduate, was an Ahlberg Gear House manager her senior year and led ORC trips throughout her undergraduate years. Students were never allowed to bring drugs and alcohol on ORC trips, she tells me, because any program that receives college funding automatically has to adhere to the school’s student handbook. Before Hammes’ arrival, though, these rules were enforced by the student leaders, Gamble says. It was a culture she and other upperclassmen valued.
“I’ll probably party with you when we get back to campus,” she’d tell her trip participants, “but when we’re out here, things are different.” There seemed to be a respect for the serenity and virtue of wilderness inherent in ORC trips even before Outdoor Education implemented policy and procedure manuals.
The “good old days” of the ORC seem muddled. Some students tell swashbuckling tales of keg stands on top of 14ers, while others emphasize a long-standing culture of sobriety in the ORC. As many observe dwindling attendance at ORC meetings and comment that the club is dying, others point to higher-than-ever frequency of and attendance on ORC trips. This past spring break alone, three ALI Level II training trips, all student-led, embarked to develop skills for aspiring overnight backcountry leaders.
“I don’t know of anywhere else with a program like ours,” says Hammes, “where students get to propose trips on their own—budgeting, route, location, duration. Most schools just say, ‘here’s our line-up, who wants to lead what?’ We don’t say no to a trip. We may ask you to tweak it because we don’t think it’s realistic to hike twenty-four miles in day one, but we want to guide you.”
He points to the students showing resistance to Outdoor Education as an institution. “There will always be students who just want free money from the college to do their own thing,” he says. “No matter what you do, there will always be six percent of people you can’t please. If you put all your energy into that six percent, you’ll never reach the other 94 percent.”
The other 94 percent are the students who didn’t grow up in the outdoors. These are the students who did not participate in the ORC in the so-called “good old days”—back when it was almost completely white, upper-middle class outdoor veterans. This 94 percent now has access to the outdoors because of programs like the ALI, the climbing gym, the gear house and the many affordable, student-led trips the ORC puts out each year. This 94 percent is able to experience the Sense of Place that Colorado College advocates for in their promotional materials, New Student Orientation, and across campus life.
Today, we have the Climbers Association of CC, the CC Boaters and the Free-Riders Union of CC, clubs which all demonstrate high levels of participation. They represent a community of outdoor lovers who flock to the outdoors when they’re not in class—sometimes with beer, sometimes without—and occasionally lead Outdoor Education sponsored trips (these ones are substance free, of course). It’s quite possible that the outdoor community at Colorado College is no less cohesive than it was in the ‘70s. It just looks a bit different today.
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If Outdoor Education wants to maintain student-led trips, though, the shortage of invested students is going to have to be addressed. Attempts have been made for leaders to begin to receive academic credit for completing ALI trainings. The current co-chairs, Melissa Seehausen and Bennett Silverman, have focused tremendous efforts toward rebuilding the community within the ORC. While the ORC co-chairs work to address community, believing that student desire to lead trips will increase the more they feel connected to the club, Outdoor Education is becoming anxious about the low number of trips planned for the spring.
Seehausen and Silverman have struggled throughout the year to put a finger on what exactly needs to happen within the ORC. It’s clear that students don’t feel the sense of ownership that they once did, and, as a result, they are less inclined to spend the little free time they do have helping to maintain the club. Five years ago, students feared that the club might be shut down. Today, however, with four full-time staff, a substantial budget, and a brand new Outdoor Education building, the ORC is not fighting for its life. At least not in the same way.
Neal Smeltzer suggests that maybe it just seems like students are less active in the ORC because now there are full-time staff working in the Outdoor Education Center from nine to five every day, ensuring proper functioning of almost all aspects of Outdoor Education and the ORC. Maybe it’s that student initiative is just a smaller percentage of the overall efforts, Smeltzer says, because they see that the staff has everything under control. Students know that if they don’t sacrifice their spring breaks to lead a trip, they will not be single-handedly responsible for the ORC’s demise.
Colorado College’s Outdoor Education department is currently recognized across the country for its successes. Co-chair Seehausen recently attended the Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education conference in Grand Junction, Colorado.
“On paper,” says Seehausen, “CC is doing astoundingly well. How much our trips are subsidized, accessibility, gear, bulk food, how many trips we’re able to send out because of the block plan.” According to director Ryan Hammes, CC sends out almost 200 trips each year, amounting to about 7,500 user days (days per person) in the field, with no major incidents.
“And it’s all led by students,” says Hammes, shaking his head. “That’s the coolest damn part.”
Only time will tell whether Outdoor Education will be able to sustain student leadership. Community-focused efforts and different forms of compensation for leaders could help.
Smeltzer looks back on his days as a student in the ORC with affection. He doesn’t believe that the times have necessarily changed, either, in terms of the role of the club. People can still organize whatever trips they want, he says, they’re just not going to receive school funding for everything. The ORC can still serve as a space for students to come together around outdoor recreation, share ideas and plan personal trips.
“That’s what the ORC used to be,” says Smeltzer, “and that’s where it still can fit within Outdoor Ed. Outdoor Education is education focused and the ORC is recreation focused.”
Maybe the problem is that these two separate entities, a college-sanctioned department and a student-run club, are so foundationally different, but rely on each other so heavily. Both aim to make the outdoors accessible to the student body, but the short-term goals diverge a bit. Outdoor Education is assessed based on how many trips it sends out each year and how many students participate in these trips. Seehausen sees the role of the ORC as more community-centered—to her, success means that ORC members form meaningful relationships around the outdoors. These interests are mutually dependent. Without the community of the ORC, Outdoor Education would have to find another way to compensate leaders for their time. And without Outdoor Education, the ORC would not be able to send out nearly as many trips.
* * *
Back in the Outdoor Education Center, on a lethargic spring evening, the co-chairs discuss if there’s hope for the ORC.
Silverman lets out a sigh. “Yes,” he says. “And I have hope that other people think so too.”
“We have some really great Outdoor Education staff,” says Seehausen, “and we’ve tried some new things this year. There are always ideas flowing. I know that the co-chairs will always be working on good things.” That is, if anyone applies this year.