From hiking up snow-covered mountain trails to sleeping in campsites frequented by feral pigs, students who use spring break to go on outdoor adventures face a variety of challenges. And those challenges play a role in bringing these students together.
Facing shared adventure and adversity helped students make meaningful connections with each other, even across differences in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and background, according to a recent study led by Nathan Williams, teaching assistant in 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 public university in the Southeast, along with program leaders, the program founder, and the program administrator. Williams asked about the students’ experiences on the outdoor adventure trips, which were focused on diversity learning. The Abstract spoke with Williams about what he learned.
ABOUT: What about being outdoors helped students make connections?
Williams: Outdoors, they are in an environment that is new, unique and challenging. They are outside in the 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 were backpacking trips where they would carry all their own things or there would be a lot of insects or bugs. You imagine that when people have to sleep in a tent outside, cook their own meals outside of a kitchen, and they’ve never done that, people become closer to each other. The students bonded through adversity.
Then, at the end of the day, students are free to discuss their backgrounds, identities, and values around campfires (sometimes around literal fires if the weather cooperated). A big part of field trips and these “fireplaces” is that you can create a space where the students feel that they know each other and are dependent on each other. They depend on each other to “survive” outdoors – not in a reality TV show sense, but they live together outdoors for a week on a road trip and develop connections through these experiences. So these campfires created a setting for meaningful discussions and making connections with others.
ABOUT: What did the students learn?
Williams: Participants on these tours engaged in a number of formal diversity and identity activities. Students created their own “identity tree” to reflect on their backgrounds, family roles, race, ethnicity, gender, and then the program created a space to share them. They learned that they had commonalities with other students that they would not normally assume they had. They also had their assumptions about other students with whom they might not have interacted on campus challenged.
ABOUT: Is there a formula that you would recommend to other programs planning diversity-focused field trips?
Williams: First, students need to be taught skills for living outside – so setting up tents, canoeing, backpacking, camp cooking and outdoor hygiene. When you don’t necessarily shower every day and you’re used to it or other daily conveniences, you have to learn to adapt and be comfortable in a new environment.
The next ingredient is teaching social skills—skills for being on a road trip with new friends and getting along with a group. The final piece is teaching diversity-focused skills. How can students have discussions about race, ethnicity, or gender and find ways to express themselves, but not have 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, specifically interacting politely about sensitive topics. So program leaders gave students guidance on how to talk respectfully about diversity. Then instructors or tour guides bring the students into an environment where they can talk to each other, but give them the freedom to talk about whatever they choose. So the program creates a structure for them to go deeper with diversity conversations.
ABOUT: 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 share perspectives across differences, but much research shows that students often interact with students like themselves. We should all be doing more to help students engage with others on campus, whether it’s creating real campfires for discussion, classroom fire pits, or finding other settings where students can explore their own identities and learn about others.