Research Summary

Diversity in the Outdoors: National Outdoor Leadership School Students’ Attitudes About Wilderness

Scholarship Initiatives and Wilderness Attitudes Among NOLS Students

Journal of Experiential Education

Outdoor experiential education programs can deeply shape students’ attitudes about the environment and, as such, are a promising way to increase the diversity of people and ideas that are welcomed in environmental spaces. Recognizing the disparity in demographics between typical experiential program participants, who tend to be white and upper-middle class, and the broader U.S. population, outdoor education programs have implemented a number of initiatives to increase their accessibility and relevance to a wider range of participants.

One such initiative is the Gateway Scholarship Program of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a scholarship awarded based on an interest in the outdoors and financial need, primarily for students who self-identify as persons of color. The researchers conducting this work were interested in whether students participating in NOLS through the Gateway Scholarship had significantly different wilderness attitudes than nonscholarship participants before and after their course experience.

Researchers surveyed a total of 74 NOLS students in the autumn after their participation in a summer course. Of those, 33 students had applied for and received a Gateway Scholarship and 41 had not. The researchers also interviewed 19 of the students for insights into the particular ways their attitudes about wilderness and environment had changed.

Results indeed showed significant differences between scholarship and nonscholarship participants in both 7 pre-course wilderness attitudes and in perceived change as a result of the course. The researchers note, however, this may have been partly driven by nonscholarship participants’ consistently high responses about their precourse attitudes.

Promisingly, the surveys and interviews suggest the NOLS course made students—especially scholarship participants—feel more connected to their ecological community and more aware of negative human environmental impacts. Participants also highlighted elements of their experiences that were especially meaningful; namely, the wilderness medicine and Leave No Trace Skills components and the time allotted for reflecting on their outdoor experience. Gateway scholarship participants’ attitudes toward wilderness were significantly more positive following their NOLS course. Importantly, however, they also voiced concerns about barriers to participating in other wilderness experiences due to cost, distance, and continued perceptions of how removed wilderness seemed to be from their home environment. The way that wilderness and environment are perceived by program participants, even after course involvement, thereby seems to be impactful for continued participation and a key element of making such experiences relevant in the long term.

The Bottom Line

Outdoor experiential program scholarships may be constructive avenues toward making wilderness experiences more accessible and relevant for a broader range of students. To meaningfully diversify such outdoor spaces, however, programs should also focus on expanding the narratives and relationships with the outdoors that they explicitly voice and value. To do so, programs can examine the underlying narratives about wilderness that their curricula communicate, as well as the implicit assumptions that participants and instructors may have about wilderness. Program leaders can consider the ways in which wilderness ethics are, or are not, transferable to everyday life, and purposefully invite—from instructors and the students themselves—broader narratives of how connections to nature can be achieved, both during and after the program.