Outdoor Experiences Can Support Diversity Education Goals Among College Students

Two people kayak together on a lake.

The outdoors has long been a place for people to explore what they’re capable of and who they want to be. For young people who pursue higher education, college is also a time to think about identity and meet people with different perspectives and ideas. A new study examines the power of bringing these two experiences together – outdoor recreation and college education. The paper, based on data collected at a large public university located in the southeastern U.S., looked at outcomes from an outdoors-based diversity education program.

People sit outside near a fire.

The program included many common elements of collegiate outdoor adventure trips including opportunities to learn new technical skills like setting up tents, communal meals, and lots of time spent on physically active tasks like backpacking and paddling. It also incorporated informal “campfire spaces” for students to bond and share their experiences with one another and more formal exercises like identity trees to guide students through reflection. The study found that this approach was successful in helping students to bond across different identities and backgrounds. Students on these trips applied to the program and therefore had to self-select into outdoor experiences focused on issues of diversity and inclusivity, which certainly contributed to the success of the program. However, although these students shared a common interest in diversity education, they had diverse backgrounds in other ways. Of the 72 students who participated in the program, 33 participated in data collection for the study and they represented a range of identities in terms of age, gender, and race.

College students stand and talk on a sidewalk

One of the most exciting results of this study is that program participants did not only get to know the other students in their program, but also changed their views on aspects of campus life and shifted their perceptions of many of the peers they encounter outside of their outdoor adventure experiences. The author of the paper points to two aspects of outdoor education that may have been especially important in achieving these results. The first is collective learning. While camping and recreating together, students learned new skills in cooperative environments. They worked together to accomplish tasks that previously appeared difficult or intimidating to them. The second is overcoming challenge. By committing to outdoor adventure trips, students necessarily encountered challenge as they dealt with long miles on hikes, buggy conditions in campsites, and the discomfort of changes to their normal routines around meals and showering. When groups experienced these challenges and persevered, it brought them closer together in powerful ways that helped them to be more vulnerable and understanding in conversations about identity, discrimination, and other diversity education topics.

Three people walk down a trail and we see them from above.

This study is one example of a successful program that melds outdoor recreation and efforts to make educational environments more inclusive. While there is certainly more to learn about inclusivity in the outdoor industry and the role of group experiences in diversity education, these results highlight some of the ways that the outdoors can support goals related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Communal learning, dependence on group members, and the presence of new challenges are all longstanding features of outdoor education programming. We should continue to explore their potential for welcoming new communities into outdoor recreation and onto college campuses.