John Dockendorf on “Thoughts on Outdoor Education as a Major?”

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John Dockendorf was always a lover of the outdoors, so much so that he made an entire 43-year career in the field of outdoor education, spending countless work hours outdoors. Originally a native of Maryland, Dockendorf attended the University of Vermont to pursue higher education that included numerous pathways within recreation management, receiving top marks in his class in 1981. After assisting many of his professors, he decided to pursue his passion further, adding a Master of Management (hospitality) from prestigious Cornell University. His work and study ethic again earned him top honors and he was the recipient of the John E.H Sherry Scholarship.

Dockendorf has spent the last 28 years developing and operating Adventure Treks Inc. as one of the nation’s leading outdoor programs for teens and young adults. While he was seeking to make an impact domestically with students from all 50 states, he also made an impact around the world, receiving students from over 25 countries.  America is unique in its tradition of summer camps and outdoor programs which create a great learning experience that is seldom found of the same caliber, anywhere else in the world. Dockendorf and his wife, Jane also restored the legacy of Camp Pinnacle, a bankrupt summer camp, founded in 1928, which they reopened in 2012 and is now known as one of western North Carolina’s most successful legacy summer camps.

They notably kept both programs open through the pandemic and passed both companies down to their long-time directors in 2021, aging out of the grueling workload that owning seasonal outdoor businesses entail. Through his vast industry experience, many of his former students and many who know him by reputation have asked him for his take on studying outdoor education as a major. While some view Outdoor Education as an incredibly effective field of study, others wonder if it is a substantive enough major from which to build a meaningful career, especially when considering the high cost of college.

Dockendorf aims to answer – Is outdoor education a worthwhile college major?”

Outdoor Education: a Hidden Jewel of Higher Education

In fact, depending on the specific school and degree program, outdoor education may be a specialized major, a  minor, or a specialty field of study within the overall field of Parks, Recreation, Leisure, Kinesiology, Natural Resources, Fitness Studies or even Environmental Sciences. Although Outdoor Education or Adventure Leadership may be seen as an uncommon or niche major with limited application, it teaches its practitioners a necessary skill set that can be transferable to a variety of fields in the future. It is often these leadership and motivational skills that may be the biggest benefit and take away from a specialized course of study in outdoor education.

At first glance, it may seem redundant to obtain a degree in Outdoor Education, much less immerse oneself in four years of higher education specializing in a very specific field, which may not remain attractive as a career as graduates grow older. Something to remember, due to the hands-on nature of an outdoor education degree and the fact that these classes are best taught outdoors, outdoor education classes tend to be extremely fun when compared to other college classes! 

Let’s face it.  Working as an outdoor educator is an absolute dream job, especially in one’s 20s and even low 30s. But at some point, most workers want a slower pace, less frenetic schedules, less time away from home, larger salaries, less time sleeping on the ground, and perhaps a less physically demanding job. After all, many graduates’ initial outdoor education work experiences are often related to summer camps, guiding and outfitting, raft guiding, zipline guiding, wilderness leadership, trail crew, and other jobs often deemed as seasonal. These tend to be positions reserved mostly for fit, active young people.  

Not all of these jobs are seasonal, there are other outdoor education careers like park rangers, naturalists, community recreation programmers, and outdoor program leaders at universities and high schools,  where one can still thrive as they age. The trend, however,  is that as outdoor practitioners mature, one frequently shifts into managerial roles often replacing field time with leading, managing and planning functions.  This changes the needed skill set from a teaching or guiding hands on role to one where  managing people and product becomes more important. Management requires a different set of skills. John Dockendorf’s advice is to plan for aging gracefully  and combine outdoor education courses while in college with business, management and organizational development  classes so you have the skills to grow within the outdoor industry and transition to a manager. Sometimes an outdoor education major with a business minor is a good combination, or it can be reversed.

Outdoor education majors learn through their studies and hands-on fieldwork, many different skills that can be transferable to a variety of careers.  Leading others in challenging outdoor situations, when conditions are constantly changing and participants are outside of their comfort zones can be a metaphor for much of life these days.  The confidence and human resources skills gleaned in these situations transfers aptly to the business world away from the outdoors.  Dockendorf has seen many outdoor leaders who have gone on to manage all types of companies and credit their outdoor leadership skills as the reason for their success. Skill sets developed in an outdoor education curriculum include risk management, planning, decision making under uncertainty, equity and inclusion. Overall, a degree in outdoor education goes much beyond being an environmentalist or camp counselor. You are effectively learning to effectively lead others and that is a skill you can take and transfer anywhere.

Those who are looking to major in this discipline will develop  strong communication and interpersonal skills and will learn to thrive through discomfort and build resilience.. A career in outdoor education should be treated as a short term career for one’s twenties but it is highly transferable and will help you develop a great customer-service mindset couples with an ability to safely  lead others through environments that many may find intimidating and even frightening