Two women climbing the side of a cliff in the middle of a forest
Students participate in a variety of field experiences as part of some classes. (Courtesy of Outdoor Adventure Program)

Outdoor Leadership Certificate program celebrates its first graduate

Skills gained in the program can be applied to a variety of outdoor-focused careers.

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Gillian Fitzgerald has always liked the outdoors and been passionate about education. A senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, Fitzgerald is a student worker for the university’s Outdoor Adventure Program. This month, she becomes the first graduate of VCU’s Outdoor Leadership Certificate program.

“I never knew you could do both at the same time before coming to VCU,” said Fitzgerald, who is majoring in English and minoring in environmental studies. “I hope to continue to grow as an outdoor educator through both recreational guiding and youth mentorship in an outdoor setting.”

The Outdoor Leadership Certificate is the result of years of collaboration between VCU's Outdoor Adventure Program and the Center for Environmental Studies. The Outdoor Leadership Certificate was officially approved and launched in Fall 2021.

Students from any major can declare the certificate. 

“We have everyone from business to engineering to sculpture to environmental studies taking the Outdoor Leadership Certificate courses,” said Karl Schmidt, Outdoor Adventure Program coordinator in the Division of Student Affairs, Recreation and Well-Being. “That said, the Outdoor Adventure Program was intentional in working with the Center for Environmental Studies in offering this certificate because we felt that there would be a lot of natural cross-pollination since the subject matter complements each other so well.”

Students in the program complete 12 credits of core courses — outdoor leadership, outdoor programming and event management, outdoor team building and facilitation and wilderness first responder.

The front of a kayak looking out at a river and other people kayaking in front of it
Students participate in a variety of field experiences as part of some classes. (Courtesy of Outdoor Adventure Program)

Students come into these courses with a wide variety of goals, outdoor experience levels and desired outcomes, Schmidt said.

“Some students are drawn in because of the outdoor adventure angle, others gravitate towards leadership development. The beauty of Outdoor Leadership as an area of study is the amount of direct and indirect transference that students are provided as they move forward professionally,” he said.

VCU junior Nicolas Lopez has learned a broad base of skills in the Outdoor Leadership Certificate program.

“What’s taught is applicable to whatever you do in life,” said Lopez who is majoring in environmental leadership and historical archaeology in University College Interdisciplinary Studies.

He hopes to turn the knowledge he’s acquired into a career.

“This certification shows that you already have good knowledge in outdoor areas. It can lead to better starting pay or starting position for future jobs. Even if you do not go into the outdoor industry, all the skills gained in these classes can be applied to other careers and life in general,” he said.

Fitzgerald, the program’s first graduate, describes the classes as extremely rewarding.

“I’ve had the opportunity to learn about the behind-the-scenes aspects of outdoor education, meet a variety of people with different careers and paths within outdoor leadership and develop and practice my own leadership style among my peers,” she said.

Interested students can learn more about the certificate and apply here.