Outdoor Recreation adventures lead to lofty, fun jobs

GCU graduate Katie McKenna learned valuable skills on Outdoor Recreation trips that led to a job with REI.

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

The mid-June rains came hard and fast, then the flash flooding. Roads and bridges collapsed, and the park was evacuated.

Chase Barnett was responsible for the safety and happiness of travelers who laid out good money to see Yellowstone National Park, and he was the hired guide in only his second week of work.

“We had to roll with the punches, get hotel rooms and flip around what we were planning to do, and amid all that do it with a smile,” said Barnett, who had to tell people in his group that they would not see much of Yellowstone. “That’s the nature of guiding. You are going to be in some tough situations, and you do your best to make sure people around you are having fun no matter what happens.”

It’s a skill he picked up at Grand Canyon University. Even though the University is in the middle of a large city and doesn’t have an outdoor recreation degree, its robust Outdoor Recreation program gives many students skills they’re using to land jobs in the outdoor industry after graduation – even if their degrees are in engineering, marketing, the sciences or entrepreneurial studies, like Barnett.

GCU graduate Chase Barnett pauses for the view while guiding a group in Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone trip was his second expedition as a Jackson, Wyoming-based guide for Backroads, an international active travel company.

“It’s been equally rewarding and exhausting at the same time. You have to be on you’re A game all the time. When your priority is making someone’s vacation happen, you have to put other people first all the time. Then again, I was whitewater rafting earlier today,” said the 2022 graduate. “Even though I’m physically exhausted, when you have a moment you step back and realize that what you do for work is just incredible.”

His career path took a turn after he landed a student leader position with Outdoor Recreation in his junior year, and he learned the joy of bringing others to the outdoors to share his passion for wild places. And that’s where he learned to make the best of the unpredictable.

He was leading a GCU paddleboarding trip on the Colorado River through Horseshoe Bend. The first day it did nothing but rain.

“So you just look at one another and all the participants and you decide, well, we are really doing this and there is no turning back, so our only option is to have a good attitude,” he said. “We got back to camp, and it just totally turned the trip around for us. You make it through a long day, and the sun will come out eventually.”

Student leaders take wilderness first responder training and other backcountry skills courses to lead students who sign up for adventure trips, of which there are 113 planned for the next academic year throughout the Southwest and hotspots nearby on the beautiful Arizona landscape.

“They are not just learning to start a fire or set up a tent,” said Chad Schlundt, Outdoor Recreation Manager. “They are examples of experiential education to a T. You are learning to lead peers, which is the hardest thing to do. A lot of them know how to build relationships really well. I find that a lot of employers hire them for that skillset.”

It also helps to have experience in public speaking, thinking on your feet and problem solving, as well as steely nerve to keep your cool while evacuating the field during a lightning storm.

Schlundt keeps a running list of dozens of employers, from guiding companies, camps, outfitters and contractors, where former leaders are now earning wages.

“Dude, Chad,” former student Moriah Leuthauser recently told him in the outdoorsy vernacular, “my experience with Outdoor Rec got me this job (leading adaptive outdoor recreation adventures with veterans and others with disabilities for a company called No Barriers).

"They were so impressed that I knew how to do an emergency action plan.”

Others also said they picked up an appreciation for the outdoors.

Katie McKenna will never forget her first trip as a student in 2017, to Havasu Falls, a bucket list Arizona destination. She jumped off a 50-foot waterfall and slid down another.

Katie McKenna finds delight in the outdoors.

“That was my first backpacking trip ever,” said McKenna, who was hooked and the following fall became a student leader.

Often, the most memorable trips were those with challenges.

Leading a climbing trip in Nevada, McKenna and a co-leader misread the map and ended up going on a very difficult route they couldn’t finish.

“It was very humbling and embarrassing to struggle so much,” she said. “So we changed plans, and it allowed us time to go to a rock formation near Las Vegas. The whole group dynamic was nice and willing to go with the flow.”

Schlundt said it’s what attracts employers to GCU students – a Christian university experience that creates a high level of kindness and trustworthiness they bring to outdoor adventures.

McKenna said getting a job working as a guide for REI resulted from her experience and wilderness certifications in the program. The 2019 graduate is now a day tours regional program coordinator for REI.

“What we did for Outdoor Rec – being in charge of permits, planning, reaching out to guests, going on the trips – is like six different jobs at REI, so it was really impactful,” she said. “It’s something most schools and outdoor programs don’t offer.”

The path to a job outdoors was even more atypical for Scott Martin, a 2020 mechanical engineering graduate.

He uses skills learned as a trip leader with Outdoor Recreation and at the Canyon Activity Center’s climbing wall to get a job that combines both his climbing skills and his engineering degree.

Scott Martin takes a selfie high atop a tower.

Martin climbs and inspect cell phone towers, sometimes up to 1,000 feet tall, for Tower Engineering Professionals.

“I never imagined those two would combine, but that was a strong point when I got hired. They knew I was a climber and not afraid of heights,” he said.

Martin recently was married in Utah – to Cora (Bythrow) Martin, who also was involved in Outdoor Recreation and now works at REI – and he could share with Schlundt and many other former students who attended how he travels the country for inspections high above the earth's surface. He remembers what draws him outdoors.

“No worries. You are just up in the clouds with the birds, looking over the land,” he said. “It’s peaceful.”

The unexpected career path came from gathering experiences outside the classroom and awakening to a new understanding many of the former students shared.

“First, understanding the importance of failing and not letting that hold you down,” Barnett said. “Failing often and failing fast and learning from it are the quickest way to personal growth.”

He could pause outdoors, look at the big picture and put the stress of learning or personal improvement in perspective.

“If everyone, once in awhile, can step back and count their blessings from that bird's-eye perspective -- I have a roof over my head, I have food on the table and people who support me, and it’s sunny out today – you realize those are the things that are important.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


Related content:

GCU Today: Outdoor Rec trips ascend to heavenly harmony

GCU Today: GCU Base Camp equips students, staff for outdoors


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