Every high school student looks forward to the day that they can leave home to begin the wildest years of their life. Universities in our region waste no time introducing students to their wild side - by handing them a rope, a paddle and a sleeping bag.
"It's all about the experience," says Southern Adventist University student Alana Retseck. "They say after 10,000 hours you're an expert - that's what we work toward." Retseck, an outdoor education graduate student, gains plenty of experience by plummeting down dark caves, climbing up treacherous rock faces and navigating through 80-mile-per-hour sandstorms in the Mojave Desert, all of which are a part of Southern's Outdoor Leadership program.
In fact, enterprising college coeds all across the Tennessee Valley can find adventure with their university's outdoor programs, which send students on expeditions involving caving, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing and climbing among the countless trails, caves and rivers in the area. "We use all of our resources; we don't just stay on campus," Retseck says. "There's so much to do around Chattanooga."
Most university students prefer to keep their exploits local, easily finding nearby thrills to feed their hunger for the outdoors.
"We can do a full outdoor trip and be back in an eight-hour day, which is popular with students who need to study," explains Miles Ledford, assistant director of UTC Outdoors.
John Benson, director of Sewanee University's outdoor program, says his students explore places like the Hiwassee River, Foster Falls and Nickajack Lake on the 140-plus yearly trips that the Sewanee Outing program provides, most of which are local and led by one of the 90 student leaders. "For all of our trips, we don't hire guides - we do it all ourselves," Benson says.
Most students, however, don't even need to leave campus to get a piece of the action. Those at Sewanee enjoy a 13,000-acre campus with more than 50 miles of wooded trails, at least 10 caves and a 60-foot-long and 12-foot-high bouldering wall. On similar footing is Southern, hosting its own natural caves, climbing wall and ropes course, and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which sports a new 43-foot indoor climbing wall and 13-foot-high boulder.
These outdoor programs do more than just allow college students to play outside; they give hope to all those kids that dream of being professional explorers when they grow up.
UTC Outdoors pulls student workers from the Health and Human Performance department, giving them a chance to back up their degrees with outdoor experience. Southern boasts an entire Outdoor Leadership degree program, allowing its students to study the outdoors along with the career path of their choice, including adventure therapy, business, cultural interpreter, naturalist, outdoor ministry, public relations, advertising, recreation and technology.
Southern also offers a bachelor's degree in outdoor emergency services, which is embedded with a two-year RN degree. "That's a very popular one," says Outdoor Leadership Director Doug Tilstra, as the emergency services degree allows graduates to find jobs in your typical hospital as well as in the outdoor arena. "If they choose to do something more adventure-based, they are equipped to do it."
Perhaps the biggest thing that these students have going for them is the fact that they can experience quality adventures at little or no cost. At UTC, for example, as long as a student has a valid Mocs card, he or she is free to utilize the recreation center's many amenities - from mountain bikes to kayaks - as well as join in on the adventures, local and abroad.
"Students appreciate that all of it is mostly free," UTC student outdoor coordinator Aubree Hargett says. "It introduces outdoor activities to students that they normally can't do on their own."
At Sewanee, even the most far-reaching trips are a jaw-dropping low cost of $130. "I don't want the outdoors to be off limits based on students' income," says Benson. "I do have to do a lottery [for the trips abroad] because they are very popular."
Sewanee students have canoed the Rio Grande and climbed a 14,000-foot peak in the Rocky Mountains while outdoor seniors at Southern are challenged each year to plan an "epic" trip and put it into action, the last of which involved motorcycle rides through Death Valley. UTC has been known to take its students to great heights - and let them jump. "It's one of those experiences you have to do for yourself," Hargett explains of the time she went skydiving with the UTC Outdoors program.
Students also learn that an outdoor exploit isn't just about experiencing something new and exciting - it's about experiencing it with someone who is new to you and just as excited as you are.
"It's a great bonding experience, the times you spend at the campsite," says Liz Urquhart, senior at Sewanee. "When you are waking up together and making food ... you get to know the people, which is important."
No matter the adventure, these colleges offer wild outdoor programs that allow students to tap into nature as they venture out on daring excursions, involving both body and soul.
BACK TO SCHOOL (Without the Classes)
Outdoor-loving Chattanoogans are in luck - some campus thrills are available to the public.
Student Park Cave at Southern Adventist University
Open to the community free of charge on the first Saturday of every month from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Graduate assistants will be there to assist cavers, whether they are beginners or pros.
Goliath Wall, Southern's amphitheater/rock climbing wall
Open to the public on the first Saturday of September and again in October from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.
Sewanee University's wooded trails
The 13,000-acre campus is available to the public for daytime hiking trips.