From hiking snow-capped mountain trails to sleeping in campgrounds frequented by wild boar, high school students who use spring break to go on outdoor adventures face a variety of challenges. And these challenges play a role in bringing these students together.
Exposure to shared adventures and adversity helped students make meaningful connections to one another, even across differences in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and background, according to a recent study led by Nathan Williams, assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University.
Williams interviewed former student participants in a diversity-focused college outdoor adventure program offered at a Southeastern public university, along with program leaders, the program’s founder, and the program administrator. Williams asked about the students’ experiences on the outdoor adventure trips that focused on learning diversity. The Abstract spoke to Williams about what he learned.
TA: What about being outside helped students make connections?
Williams: Outdoors, you are in an environment that is new, unique and challenging. You are outside in cold, rain and other conditions. They are away from home, with a new group of people, and have different support systems. Sometimes the students face physical challenges – some of these trips have been backpacking trips where they all carried their own stuff or there were lots of bugs or insects. They imagine if people have to sleep outside in a tent, have to cook their own meals outside of a kitchen, and they’ve never done that, people become closer. The students bonded through adversity.
At the end of the day, students are then free to discuss their backgrounds, identities and values during campfire conversations (sometimes literally around the campfire, weather permitting). A big part of outdoor outings and those “campfire spots” is that you can create a space where students feel like they know each other and depend on each other. They rely on each other to “survive” outdoors — not in the reality TV show sense, but they live together outdoors for a week on a road trip, and they form bonds throughout the experiences. Then, these campfire sites created an environment to have meaningful discussions and connect with others.
TA: What did the students learn?
Williams: Participants in these trips engaged in a range of formal diversity and identity activities. Students created their own “identity tree” to reflect on their background, family roles, race, ethnicity and gender, and then the program created a space to share these. They learned that they had things in common with other students that they would not normally assume they had. They had also questioned their assumptions about other students they might not have interacted with on campus.
TA: Is there a formula you would recommend for other programs planning outdoor excursions with a focus on diversity?
Williams: First, students need to be taught skills for outdoor living – that is, pitching tents, canoeing, backpacking, camp cooking, and outdoor hygiene. If you don’t necessarily shower every day and are used to it or any other daily convenience, you need to learn to adjust to a new environment and be comfortable.
The next ingredient is teaching social skills—skills for being on a road trip with new friends and getting along in a group. The last part is teaching skills focused on diversity. How can students engage in discussions about race, ethnicity, or gender and find ways to express themselves without engaging in destructive conflict with others? These were some of the diversity-focused skills that the students learned and put into practice.
A big part of the experience is practicing interactions, especially interacting with politeness about sensitive topics. Therefore, the program leaders provided guidance to the students on how to speak respectfully about diversity. Then instructors or tour guides put students in an environment where they can talk to each other but give them the freedom to talk about whatever they want. So the program creates a structure for them to deepen conversations about diversity.
TA: Why are these important skills for students to learn?
Williams: Despite decades of diversity education in universities and efforts to create shared understanding and respect, we still have identity-based violence and deep divisions. College should ideally be a time when students meet diverse peers and exchange perspectives across borders, but much research shows that students often interact with students who are their own kind. We should all do more to help students connect with others on campus, whether it’s creating real campfires for discussion, classroom campfire spots, or finding other environments in which students can explore their own identities and learn more about others can experience.