It’s pouring rain, and some of North Carolina Central University’s custom outdoor education program participants slip into the knee-deep mud, briefly maintaining their balance, only to slide like baseball players down a short, navigable incline.
Stephen Mullaney, NCOAE’s director of school partnerships, quickly glances over to see how Christina is doing — just in time to see a huge grin from beneath her rain hood. That figures, he thinks.
Christina Garrett is a go-getter, no question about that. She is the Associate Director of University Scholars at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), one of about a hundred Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States.
As Christina, NCCU students, and some of NCOAE wilderness field instructors continue their trek in the rain, she tells Stephen about her own outdoor experiences, including fishing with her father, visiting state parks, and her accomplishment of heading what is likely the first required wilderness orientation experience for incoming freshmen and transfer students at a Historically Black College/University.
Christina’s program, which is named the Cheatham-White Scholarship Program, was established in 2018 and provides academic scholarships based on merit. Focusing on students attending NCCU, the program was designed for exceptional student scholars who possess a range of interests, proficiency in both the arts and sciences, and who demonstrate leadership potential and a commitment to service.
Admittance to the scholarship-supported program includes tuition and fees, housing, meals, textbooks, a laptop, travel, and personal expenses. The generous scholarship also means four summers of enrichment and networking. That means travel — maybe even international travel.
Where NCOAE comes into the picture is at the outset of the students NCCU experience. Four years ago, Christina came to us to discuss her program and the notion of requiring her scholars to complete a wilderness orientation program before the start of their freshman year (or first year, in the case of transfer students) at NCCU.
After fully capturing her vision and working through the details associated with establishing a new multi-year custom outdoor education program, we landed on the following details:
- Cheatham White scholarship recipients arrive on campus prior to the start of the first week of college, and within a day NCOAE instructors are with them, preparing them for a week in the wilderness.
- Participating students learn leadership skills and practice being innovative and solution minded.
- Along the way, they are taught how to identify and move beyond their comfort zone, properly experience failure, and celebrate success — all while using wilderness as a mostly unfamiliar backdrop to the experience.
- Through naturally occurring lessons in group dynamics, along with the inherent challenges presented by hiking and climbing (and, of course, the weather), student amplify and together process their experiences and emotions.
Most of NCCU’s Cheatham White scholars have never spent a night in the backcountry, carried a full backpack, or had to rely only on the resources and people with whom they travel.
As students travel through the Pisgah National Forest, they are exposed to the history of the “Cradle of the Forestry” as they absorb the sounds of rivers, below a canopy of trees.
At NCOAE, collaboration is one of our core values. We believe that thoughtful collaboration —based on the acknowledgement of one another’s strengths — allows us to deliver engaging and therefore personally transformative student experiences. And the partnership with North Carolina Central University is a true collaboration that has yielded incredible results in participants and our own instructors.
Back on NCCU’s campus after this wilderness experience, Cheatham-White scholars meet weekly for a formative seminar series. Additionally, each student meets monthly with the academic advising staff to track their academic progress. And there are community service initiatives available throughout the semester.
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University — another HBCU — recently started working with us on a backcountry experience of its own, signaling perhaps that more HBCUs will look to wilderness and experiential education to orientate, bond, and retain more of their students.
With February celebrated as Black History Month, we have great hopes that wilderness orientation programs like NCCU’s will help bridge the gap between the front and back country — and especially for those who haven’t traditionally found ample opportunities to gain exposure to and enjoy the wilderness.