An Outside Influence

WCU’s tradition of mixing academics and outdoor recreation leads to a No. 1 ‘adventure college’ ranking


Jordan Davis was a high school senior looking online for a place to go to college when he first came upon Western Carolina University’s website in the spring of 2011. Davis was strictly into mountain biking at that time, but he recalls being mesmerized by a photo on WCU’s home page that showed a student scaling one of Western North Carolina’s iconic rock climbing routes. The aura of outdoor adventure cast by that photo was enough to inspire Davis to visit Cullowhee for the first time. He enrolled that fall, and now the parks and recreation management major is looking forward to receiving his bachelor’s degree this spring.

Davis, who grew up near Mooresville, says as a teenager he enjoyed mountain biking with his father, and he enrolled at WCU with the expectation that he would be able to continue his cycling passion on the trails scattered around WNC. But in 2013, the university’s 7-mile multi-use trail system opened for mountain biking and other forms of outdoor recreation on the West Campus, providing Davis and other mountain-biking students a place to recreate that is literally a couple of minutes outside residence hall doors. Early in his freshman year, Davis discovered the indoor climbing wall at the Campus Recreation Center and took up rock climbing. He’s now been coaching WCU’s climbing team for two years. He also added snow skiing (he’s a member of the ski patrol at Sapphire Valley Ski Area in southern Jackson County) and backpacking to his outdoor recreation resume. “Before I came to school at WCU, my mother told me, ‘You’re going to go out there and do everything.’ She was right,” Davis said.

It’s not unusual for outdoor recreation-oriented WCU students to be drawn into the smorgasbord of activities available in Cullowhee, Davis said. A network of students who fit that mold support one another and encourage others to try new activities. Members of the WCU faculty and staff who also enjoy playing in the mountains help energize the outdoor culture at WCU, and Base Camp Cullowhee (WCU’s outdoor programming organization) fills a vital role in sponsoring guided trips, providing technical expertise and renting equipment to students who want to go on self-guided adventures, he said.

Davis said that sometimes when he’s riding his mountain bike on the WCU trail he’ll come to a place that is so scenic that he’ll stop his bike and gaze at the splendor thinking, “This looks like wallpaper on somebody’s computer.” But it’s not online, it’s outside. “The mountains make me happy and peaceful,” he said. Davis credits the parks and recreation management program faculty with instilling in him a passion to teach in the outdoors, and he plans on attending graduate school with a long-term goal of becoming a university professor.


WCU faculty and staff who have enjoyed Cullowhee-area outdoor activities for decades are quick to point out that there was a thriving outdoor recreation culture in the area for many years before the multi-use trail was built and the indoor climbing wall was erected, and many in the university community were taking advantage of their mountain surroundings. But, the general public’s perception of WCU as an outdoor recreation-oriented school, and the university community’s self-perception of such, may have hit an all-time high last summer when WCU was voted the No. 1 “top adventure college” in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions through an online poll sponsored by Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine. More than 115,000 visitors to the magazine’s website, including enthusiasts at the competing schools, cast votes during several rounds of voting. WCU came out on top in head-to-head matchups with Garrett College in Maryland, Emory University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Virginia Tech and Appalachian State.

In her story about the poll results, Blue Ridge Outdoors staff member Jess Daddio wrote that “WCU’s stunning campus is home to some serious adventure.” On campus, the vote was hailed as long-overdue recognition by outdoors-oriented members of the faculty and staff. Debby Singleton, an instructor for two academic programs – parks and recreation management and health and physical education – cited the work of WCU’s two longtime parks and recreation management faculty members, Maurice Phipps and Ben Tholkes, plus the programs offered through Base Camp Cullowhee, as keys to WCU receiving the recognition.

“It’s been a true partnership (between the PRM program and BCC) that has enabled both programs to offer exceptional activities and provide experiential job-related skills for the parks and recreation management majors,” said Singleton, who partakes in skiing, hiking, stand-up paddleboarding and numerous other outdoor activities. Experiential education is, simply put, learning through experience, and in recent years the BCC staff has increased its services in that area to benefit other academic programs in addition to PRM, said Josh Whitmore, WCU’s associate director of outdoor programs who oversees BCC operations. “For example, a professor might approach us about including a climbing wall session, a group development team-building activity or a guided hike to a geologic feature in a class,” he said.

mountain biking

Student Nicholas Lacombe catches air on a local mountain bike trail.

When it comes to student participation in BCC’s programming, numbers have skyrocketed in the last decade, said Whitmore, a mountaineering guide and competitive mountain biker. During that period, the number of “touches,” or student participations, in BCC-sponsored programming has risen from about 350 to more than 7,500 each school year, he said. A decade ago, the BCC staff included Whitmore and about half a dozen student workers, but now it takes three full-time staffers and 20 to 25 students to keep the program going, he said.

WCU faculty and staff members with backgrounds in outdoor recreation heap praise on the operations of Base Camp Cullowhee and agree that it’s not an ordinary college outdoor program. Michael Despeaux, WCU’s associate director of career services and cooperative education, is an avid cyclist and kayaker. About the time he joined the WCU staff in 2002, BCC was beginning to mature as a “world-class” college outdoor program, Despeaux said. “Especially with Josh’s arrival, it gained the credibility of having both professional outdoor leadership and truly expert technical guidance,” he said. “Its student guides became both learning outcome-oriented and grounded in more depth by training and certifications recognized anywhere.”

Accolades aside, Whitmore said he agrees with the long-timers’ sentiment that an outdoors culture has long existed at WCU. “There always have been students who love being here for the location and the outdoor recreation activities that it provides,” he said. “What I have seen in my 10 years here is the marketing and image of the university now attract students who want to live the mountain lifestyle in the first place.” Phil Cauley ’83 MS ’90, WCU’s director of student recruitment and transitions, confirms that the university has been more proactive in recent years in promoting the “uniqueness, opportunities and strengths” of WCU’s location, including outdoor recreation, to prospective students. That includes incorporating more photos of the mountains and recreation activities into recruitment literature and the office’s website, accentuating the outdoor recreation options in presentations, collaborating with vendors who assist the office in publicizing those opportunities to particular student populations, and incorporating outdoor experiences into programming aimed at prospective students and those transitioning to life on campus, he said.

It’s not just new on-campus recreational options that are having an effect on WCU’s status as an epicenter of outdoor recreation. More activities in areas adjacent to campus are having an impact, said Cauley, who enjoys kayaking and cycling with his family. “For years, it seemed as though you had to travel further from Cullowhee to enjoy the outdoor possibilities than in other areas of Western North Carolina,” he said. “While the mountains haven’t moved any closer to Cullowhee, in recent years it sure feels as if access to the mountains has moved much closer to campus.” With the opening of the first section of Jackson County’s Tuckaseigee River Greenway near the back entrance to campus, development of new river access points and more health and wellness facilities and programming in the area, “WCU and Cullowhee seem even more like an outdoor enthusiast’s destination,” Cauley said.


For students who come to Cullowhee hoping to indulge in outdoor recreation opportunities, both on- and off-campus, a handful of academic programs allows them to combine academic and personal interests. Four programs in particular fit that category – environmental science, natural resource conservation and management, parks and recreation management, and recreational therapy. A university task force spent the 2012-13 academic year conducting a comprehensive study of all of WCU’s academic programs to assess their quality, productivity and connections to the university’s mission and strategic directions. Results from the “academic program prioritization” process identified eight programs that are “truly exceptional and high-performing to the extent that additional investment would be warranted, should financial circumstances allow it.” The aforementioned four programs that appeal to outdoors-oriented students make up half that list.


WCU student Tommy Connell gets into stand-up paddleboarding on a lake near campus.

Experiential education is a big component of the curriculum for the 60 to 70 students who are majoring in parks and recreation management at any given time, said Phipps, who began teaching in the program in 1992. A kayaker and mountain biker, Phipps was joined on the PRM faculty in 1993 by Ben Tholkes, and the two have overseen development of the program since then. The experiential learning focus of PRM includes multiple internships for each student and laboratory work that allows them to apply theories they learn in the classroom, Phipps said. Other factors that enrich the program are the faculty’s emphasis on implementing provisions of the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan (WCU’s comprehensive plan for institutional improvement), the job interview portfolio that is completed by each student, and the program’s strong connections with Base Camp Cullowhee and regional internship partners such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the U.S. Forest Service and North Carolina Outward Bound, Phipps said.

Phipps said the PRM program is maxed out now in the numbers of students it can handle with the equivalent of 3.5 full-time faculty positions. Courses offered through the program fill early, and some courses cannot be offered every semester, he said. “We anticipate growth in interest in the program with the Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine vote, but we would need additional faculty to grow,” he said. Tholkes, a professional ski patrol and former National Park Service ranger, added that WCU’s PRM program is a “perfect fit” to serve Western North Carolina, where outdoor recreation is an integral part of the economy. “PRM students love the program and its location, as evidenced by the number who stay in the area after graduation,” he said.

campus trail

Students Molly Fagan and Michaela Birek enjoy a stroll down WCU’s multi-use trail.

A new opportunity for first-year WCU students interested in mixing the outdoors and academics opened up this past fall semester as a new living/learning community in outdoor recreation got underway. Twenty-four students, the maximum allowed, signed up to participate in the community, which included living on the same floor of Walker Residence Hall and taking a common course, “Experiencing Adventure,” taught by Windy Gordon, an associate professor of psychology and whitewater canoeist who once competed in the Olympic trials. The course focused on the book “The Rise of Superman,” which has nothing to do with the superhero of popular culture, but instead “refers to a psychological state we’re in when we’re performing at our very best,” Gordon said. The author of the book, Steven Kotler, argues that the elevated state of performance can be obtained more often in outdoor adventure activities than anywhere else, Gordon said.

Students enrolled in the living/learning community met for Gordon’s course on Monday and Wednesday afternoons during the fall semester. Outside of class, they participated in an overnight backpacking trip to Panthertown Valley in southern Jackson County and on day trips involving hiking, climbing and rafting. Plans are in the works to offer the academic community again next fall, but the program will become much more ambitious, Gordon said. Before they can sign up, students likely will be required to participate in WCU’s summertime First Ascent Program, which will take them outside for two days of whitewater paddling, two days of backpacking and one day of climbing. Combined with a leadership course, the students will experience a triumvirate of adventure, leadership and immersion in the outdoors. “It will provide all kinds of great leadership opportunities for students,” Gordon said. “Two or three years out, I predict this cohort will populate a number of student leadership positions on campus.” On a larger scale, Gordon said he believes a core benefit of linking WCU’s academic and service mission to its natural setting is that the outdoors provide an arena where students can develop strengths and learn to do what they don’t realize they can do. “That can happen the same way it happens when students participate in WCU’s marching band or in research activities,” he said. “I think a vital, inclusive outdoor program will develop yet another group of students and build their leadership.”


Just as WCU students who are into outdoor recreation activities support one another in their adventures, university faculty and staff who are involved in outdoor education also back up each other’s work. Several years ago, Phipps founded the Western Outdoor Council, an informal group of faculty and staff who meet twice annually to go over highlights of their outdoor-related programs and efforts. Members of the WOC rub elbows outside the meeting room on a much more regular basis as they continuously assist one another with resource support, Phipps said. “We have a very cooperative group where we all work together to achieve a lot – events like the Tuckaseigee River Cleanup (the largest one-day river cleanup project in the nation, starting its fourth decade this year), the Old Cullowhee Canoe Slalom paddling competition in the fall, adventure conferences, clinics, courses and trips local and out West. And we enjoy getting out together on the trails, roads and rivers,” he said. “The outdoor programs on campus work together, but we really have had to fight hard for what we have gained in the way of resources.”

Singleton said WCU’s outdoor programs, despite evidence of their high quality, tend to fly under the radar. “We just have solid programs that represent a holistic, wellness connection to our natural environment,” she said. “I believe that many WCU faculty, staff and students value the outdoors and the opportunities we have in this region. That is what has kept many of us here for 10 to 20 years. Even though we aren’t big and flashy, we all work cooperatively and enjoy spending time with each other and our students in the outdoors.”

Considering the big picture in the wake of the Blue Ridge Outdoors vote, Whitmore said he has seen WCU’s reputation as a hotbed of outdoor recreation grow over the years among the general public and prospective students. At the same time, the “prominence, acceptance and promotion of the outdoor lifestyle” has increased on campus, he said. But, Whitmore said the university still has potential for more development as an outdoor recreation-oriented school. “It seems like WCU has made some good steps in the right direction in embracing the mountain lifestyle and encouraging it as cool to be outdoorsy,” he said. “I really like that WCU seems proud of its rural mountain location and all the advantages that offers to curriculum and recreation for our students. I believe a next step would be to more fully support and emphasize the programs and initiatives that serve as the catalyst for students to get outside and learn and recreate.”

Snow Angels

Cataloochee Ski School adaptive ski program instructor Sam Lloyd (left) and WCU student Ashley Colbert (right) work with guest Jorge Urrea of Atlanta on the slopes of the Maggie Valley ski resort located less than an hour from campus.


A nearby ski resort provides an outdoor training ground for recreational therapy students


Located less than an hour’s drive from campus, Maggie Valley’s Cataloochee Ski Area began providing customized skiing and snowboarding experiences to guests with disabilities in 2007. The resort’s adaptive ski program caters to guests with a variety of disabilities, and offers instruction in modified forms tailored to each rider’s needs. And, students majoring in recreational therapy at Western Carolina University are able to gain hands-on experience outside the classroom that can benefit them in their careers.

Ski instructor Samuel Lloyd started the adaptive program at Cataloochee after six years at a similar program at Beech Mountain. “Cataloochee is a small program with few instructors, but having worked with larger programs, I feel that we are up there with the best,” Lloyd said. “It is not the size of the program that counts but the dedication and effort of the instructors and volunteers who staff the program.”

Over the years, several WCU students have volunteered their time and energy to become a part of the program, said Jennifer Hinton, Recreational Therapy Program director at WCU. “Sam is an expert in his field and is excellent at teaching students the practical skills needed to help individuals with a wide variety of disabilities enjoy the thrill of skiing. I’m excited every time a student is able to volunteer with Sam because I know that student is going to get valuable skills that are difficult to teach in the classroom,” Hinton said. “I try to send him as many volunteers as I can every season.”

One former student volunteer is Cameron Honour ’14. An August graduate of WCU, Honour worked with many guests at Cataloochee during his time as a recreational therapy student. “One particular experience that stood out to me was working with two young brothers with paraplegia stemming from a spinal cord injury from a car accident. I watched their faces go from bored to joy as we did our first run,” he said. One of the brothers said of the experience, “‘It was the best day of my life,’” Honour said.

Current WCU student Sara Markowski, a junior from Charlotte majoring in recreational therapy, is among the latest round of WCU students hitting the slopes as Cataloochee program volunteers this winter. “I’m looking forward to joining my love of skiing with my career choice and learning more about the new equipment as well as interacting with a wide variety of participants in the program,” said Markowski.

Through the program, certified instructors assisted by student volunteers teach guests with a range of disabilities, personalizing each lesson to meet the individual needs of each skier using specially designed equipment to enable the guests to experience the thrill of skiing or snowboarding. While on the slopes with clients, they focus on improving mobility, endurance, balance and coordination. They also strive to build self-confidence, improve mental attitudes and develop determination.

Although the program is still in its early stages and considered small in comparison to others, more than 100 participants travel from as far away as Texas and Florida to take part. Those affiliated with the program say the growing relationship with WCU’s recreational therapy students has the potential to create one of the nation’s leading ability centers for adaptive ski instruction. Ten percent of the population lives with a disability that could affect their ability to enjoy skiing – folks ranging from injured war veterans to people living with chronic medical conditions, said Cataloochee certified instructor Leah Reasor. “That’s a lot of people we could help,” said Reasor, who has a special needs child. “I know how it feels to be told ‘no’, when all you want is to help your child. I don’t want another child, another veteran, to be told, ‘no, we can’t help you, there’s nothing we can do, you’ll just have to get used to it.’ I will not get used to it. Ever.”