Outdoor Education

Imagine putting on a 70-pound backpack and heading out the front door of your classroom. From there—start walking—all the way until you reach the Cascades Mountains. After three weeks in the mountains, your class hikes all the way back to campus.

This is OSU, Cascades style. In the Tourism and Outdoor Leadership (TOL) program, students get a chance every spring to take part in a one-month outdoor expedition class for college credit. That’s one month of sleeping outside – along the river for the first week and up in the Three Sisters Wilderness for the rest. Sometimes it snows. Every eight days food and equipment is packed in by other students and faculty from OSU-Cascades. Students learn about avalanche training, snow pits and team dynamics.

“But mostly it’s about being outside,” says Kai Williams. “One month solid teaches you a lot about yourself.”

Williams is a senior in the TOL program, with an option in Adventure Leadership and Education. He’s minoring in Natural Resources.

He started his college career as a biology major at Western Oregon University, but pretty quickly made the decision to pursue a career that was going to get him outside. A native of Oregon, Williams grew up in the Portland area and spent much of his youth backpacking and camping. In the summers he led outdoor programming for the Boy Scouts of America.

Williams researched outdoor leadership programs and was excited to learn about the TOL degree offered at OSU-Cascades. He said good-bye to Western Oregon and headed east.


Three Sisters Wilderness

The TOL program prepares students for a career in the outdoor industry. Students learn the technical, group leadership, management and decision-making skills needed to be an outdoor guide or trip leader. They also learn the concepts, theory and business skills needed to move beyond guiding and into management or business ownership.

Students on the expedition course specifically learn all these skills by living them, not sitting in a classroom or corporate seminar being spoken to about leadership theory. These students are putting into practice theories of leadership, decision making, and conflict resolution they have discussed in the classroom. A doctor trains to be a doctor by practicing skills needed to be a doctor, so does a counselor, lawyer, psychologist, or other professional. An aspiring leader of others in the outdoors experiences being a leader on the OSU-Cascades expedition course. 

Williams was also attracted to OSU-Cascades because of Cascades Adventures. Cascades Adventures is a tripping program led primarily by students.

“It’s a great program because the college community gets to go on trips and students get to practice our outdoor leadership skills,” he says.

Williams was pretty confident as an outdoor guide when he came to OSU-Cascades—he had just spent the summer guiding trips in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. Pretty quickly he discovered there was a lot more to learn.

Students apply to be trip leaders with Cascades Adventures. They plan and manage outdoor trips from beginning to end for other students. They scout out the terrain, prepare participants, pack supplies, and are wilderness first aid trained. Trips include midnight snowshoeing, rock climbing, hiking the South Sister, camping in the high desert and much more.

Cascades Adventures, and the TOL program, are right up Williams’ alley. One of the things he likes about the TOL program is that the students and faculty that come to the program are cut from the same cloth. The small class size and being in the heart of outdoor recreation country doesn’t hurt either.

Williams, also an EMT, is getting ready for his internship, one of the last pieces he will complete before graduation. He wants to combine education, outdoors and his medical training—and take advantage of the opportunity to go international. He’s looking into placements everywhere from South America to New Zealand.

The goal of the TOL internship is give students valuable work experience and enhance their professional qualifications. They might find themselves leading mountain climbing tours in Peru. But it’s also expected they will give something back. Interns in the past have created trail guides and risk management plans.

In his time with the TOL program, Williams learned leadership, business, and group facilitation skills, and he also honed his flexibility and ingenuity chops because let’s face it—when you’re working with mother nature, it’s a little bit unpredictable.

“If you value the outdoors, and want to make a profession out of it – whether management or guide—it really is amazing to learn from the wealth of knowledge at OSU-Cascades,” says Williams.