Bridging the Collegiate Adventure Gap: Introducing HBCUs Outside
A personal story and journey to diversify the Outdoor Industry.
“Why didn’t I go here?” shamefully crossed my mind as I toured the University of North Carolina - Greensboro’s (UNCG) recreation building. Their massive facility housed a climbing wall with ample backroom space for storing boats and other gear the students utilized on their numerous outdoor trips and excursions. As a student of North Carolina A&T State University (NCAT), I was wishfully thinking to the day where my institution would have the same resources to get more students participating in outdoor recreation. At the time, I had just reenrolled at my university after an amazing 3-year stint in the outdoor industry. My travels included touring with the Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile, dogsledding in the Boundary Waters, sea kayaking in Lake Superior, 15-day whitewater rafting excursions through the Grand Canyon, and backpacking in Stanislaus National Forest among other wanderlust activities. So, after returning to school, my top objective was figuring out how to bring all of the outdoor activities I experienced to NCAT– the largest Historically Black College/University (HBCUs) in the nation.
What I wanted to do at my university wasn’t necessarily new. For a couple of years now, the recreation center at NCAT had offered outdoor experiences – skiing, white-water rafting, paintballing, and horseback riding. But, they were limited. This made me wonder, “if NCAT, one of the most illustrious HBCUs, and its outdoor recreation programs are offering infrequent experiences, then what is occurring at the other HBCUs in the nation?” Multiple Google searches combining the acronym “HBCUs”, with the words “outdoor recreation”, “outdoor club”, “hiking”, and “camping” resulted in only one helpful link. That link showed that 2 other HBCUs were trying to establish outdoor clubs or activities through Outdoor Nation grants. This led me to apply to Outdoor Nation, and the following semester I became a National Park Service Campus Ambassador.
Since then, I have curated outdoor experiences through the recreation department as the Outdoor Program Coordinator – to increase participation, improve students’ health, and diversify activities. As a result of my leadership, the students at NCAT now had the option of night paddles at Lake Brandt, Hanging Rock State Park hiking excursions, archery, weekly running groups, Alternative Spring Breaks with American Hiking Society, kayaking the Dan River, hiking the Mountains to Sea trail with National Geographic Explorer Jennifer Pharr-Davis, and watching NOLS’ an American Ascent with discussion by Rosemary Saal. However, there is still so much to be done.
A brief look at the outdoor industry and one will see the lack of representation of people of color (POC) in outdoor recreational participation. In the most recent Outdoor Foundation Participation Report (2017) of 144.4 million Americans, just 9% were Black, compared to 73% whom were White. A deeper look at just HBCUs, which had a total combined enrollment of 292,000 in 2016 (non-Black students accounting for 23%) and one would find that outdoor participation research for this segment doesn’t yet exist. After graduating this past Spring, I thought, “how can I build and make the programs I offered through the university more sustainable, and create a template for efficient implementation at other HBCUs to diversify the outdoor industry?” This question took me back to Google. This time my searches led me to Proquest; there, I found Cameron Smith, a recent graduate of North Carolina Central University. I was reviewing his dissertation – one of the first research papers that focuses on the intersectionality of HBCUs and outdoor recreation. With his assistance and research, I have been building a social enterprise non-profit to get HBCUs Outside.
The mission of HBCUs Outside is fostering interest and engagement of HBCU students to become more active in outdoor recreation by creating and supporting student-led clubs that curate experiences for their campus community; increasing both participation rates and the health development of the schools’ students.
HBCUs Outside will curate web resources that students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities utilize to charter outdoor clubs. The organization uses a novel approach by consulting with each HBCU to identify their challenges. This means deep, authentic conversations to dismantle historical fears and misconceptions about the outdoors. Unlike other outdoor clubs, we use a charter model, supported by a collective impact framework with outdoor industry leaders. With buy-in on each side, we can both enhance the HBCU experience and elevate the outdoor industry.
The first step in this new venture is developing the pilot outdoor club at NCAT which will serve as the template for HBCUs across the nation.
Along with completing a business plan, I’m currently getting ready to attend the Summer Outdoor Retailer trade show. There, I will meet with friends and industry leaders to gather advice, sponsorship, partnership, and general interest and support in the nonprofit.
To stay up-to date with new developments, or to connect with me personally:
See you out there!
P.S. A huge thanks to Townsend Bertram & Company for signing on to become a community partner with Aggie CORE – NCAT’s outdoor club, and for allowing me to use their shop as a spring board for HBCUs Outside.