Two students seated on a bluff overlooking a river valley.
VCU students Abby Wright and Nathan Salle took part in a series of VCU courses in 2018 that included a 10-day excursion to Idaho’s Lower Salmon River. Photo by James Vonesh.

New certificate at VCU to provide students with outdoor leadership credentials

“These leadership skills are transferable to many jobs, both in the outdoors and elsewhere. The leadership skills that they learn here can take them a long way in the future.”

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Virginia Commonwealth University will begin offering a Certificate in Outdoor Leadership this fall, providing hands-on experience and training for students interested in pursuing leadership roles in private and government land management, the outdoor recreation industry, field research, environmental education, ecotourism and other fields. 

Offered by the Center for Environmental Studies in partnership with the Outdoor Adventure Program at VCU, the certificate will require a minimum of 12 credits in courses such as outdoor leadership, outdoor programming and event management, outdoor team building and facilitation, expedition planning and wilderness first aid.

“All of these courses are very hands-on and based in experiential learning,” said Joey Parent, assistant director of Outdoor Adventure Programs, part of VCU Recreational Sports in the Division of Student Affairs. “Students will be meeting in the classroom to discuss concepts and theory, but a big part of each of these courses is time outside learning and implementing what has been taught in the classroom. Students will have the opportunity to take part in outdoor activities (backpacking, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking), plan their own outdoor events, or challenge themselves on the high ropes course.”

Outdoor leadership skills are in increasing demand and transferable across a range of disciplines, including project planning, permitting, risk assessment, group facilitation, field skills — such as navigation, minimum impact best practices, wilderness first aid — and instruction, said Rodney J. Dyer, Ph.D., director of the Center for Environmental Studies.

Dyer cited Bureau of Labor Statistics research that nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. required outdoor work in 2016 and growth is projected in many of the industry sectors with opportunities for employment outdoors. The leisure and hospitality sector was projected to see a 6.39% increase in jobs and add the most new jobs over 2014-24.

He added that the Richmond region is the perfect place to work in outdoor leadership.

A group of students donning outdoor gear.
VCU environmental studies students took part in an expedition to Spruce Knob in West Virginia. Photo by James Vonesh.

“[Richmond has been] voted best outdoor town in 2012 by Outside magazine, designated a Regional Ride Center by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, and been selected as the site of the International Whitewater Hall of Fame and World River Center,” Dyer said. “Due to its excellent outdoor resources within the city, Richmond has begun to brand itself as a hot spot for urban/outdoor enthusiasts.”

Guide services, rock climbing gyms, rafting companies, recreational summer camps, fishing and bike shops, among others, have all seen an increase in opportunities in the Richmond region in recent years, he said. Richmond is also the headquarters of state agencies and nonprofit organizations, such as the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, and the James River Association, that hire employees who must be competent to work in field settings.

Outdoor leadership skills are sought after by many employers, Parent said.

“[Employers] are looking for people that have real firsthand experience leading,” he said. “Outdoor leadership is not all that different from other styles of leadership, but one thing that really stands out is its ability to put people in challenging situations. In the outdoors, there are constantly changing variables that groups have to face and learn how to deal with. All of the information may not be available, and the outcomes are not certain. Learning to stay calm and make decisions based on the information at hand can be critical. These leadership skills are transferable to many jobs, both in the outdoors and elsewhere. The leadership skills that they learn here can take them a long way in the future.”

The certificate builds on, and will lead to, the expansion of previous special courses held on the Salmon River in Idaho, in Chilean Patagonia, and on the James River in Virginia.

“These types of classes provide a very unique opportunity for students to be in the wilderness for extended periods of time and to learn through experience,” Parent said. “It pushes people to step outside of their comfort zones in a lot of different ways. They work together as a team to accomplish goals, learn new skills and gain a better understanding of the natural world around them. This in turn leads to a powerful learning environment where individuals gain a deeper, richer understanding of the topics they are engaging with and how they all connect. Looking to the future, we are excited to begin traveling again to other regions and explore new places as a team.”

For more information on the new Certificate in Outdoor Leadership, please contact