FERRUM — College is about having new experiences. For Jeffery Weatherly, that means hopping into a canoe on Philpott Lake on a muggy Thursday afternoon.
“I’m from the city,” said Weatherly, 22, of Portsmouth. “I don’t do stuff like this for real.”
Nine students from Ferrum College took to the water on canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards — all for class credit. They are enrolled in the outdoor recreation sampler course, which will also introduce students to orienteering, fly fishing and mountain biking, among other things.
These are the types of courses that students who enroll in the new ecotourism major can expect to take. Ecotourism is responsible, small-scale travel centered on nature with an eye toward conservation and education.
President David Johns has made a point of embracing the college’s rural location and natural assets. When Johns saw a poster for a minor in ecotourism, he questioned why the program wasn’t offered as a major. This year, for the first time, it is.
“Everything that we’re doing here at the college and all of our physical and natural assets would suggest this ought to be a focus for us at the level of a major,” he said.
The college also was influenced by the state’s and region’s increased emphasis on the great outdoors.
“We’ve been following the trend over the last several years, of the strengthening and growth of outdoor recreation, especially here in the Roanoke region,” said program coordinator and associate professor Chris Mayer.
The Roanoke region has branded itself as a destination for outdoor recreation. Some of the latest developments in that effort include the launch of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge “Be a #Trailsetter” campaign and the announcement that Roanoke was chosen to host an Ironman 70.3 triathlon in 2020.
Pete Eshelman has been instrumental in building that identity as director of outdoor branding for the Roanoke Regional Partnership.
“We were able to recognize what is one of our community’s greatest strengths, and that’s our natural assets, and now we’re beginning to see how different businesses and organizations, and in this case Ferrum, are beginning to leverage these natural assets for themselves as well,” Eshelman said.
He praised Ferrum for creating the ecotourism major.
“They’re looking at how do we train the future generation to make it sustainable? That’s really important so that we don’t make mistakes that other communities have made as we kind of develop,” Eshelman said. “We’re still truly in our infancy as being a tourism destination.”
And Gov. Ralph Northam announced in July, during a visit to Carvins Cove, the creation of an Office of Outdoor Recreation that will advocate for the outdoors and work to recruit related businesses.
Cassidy Rasnick, director of that office, said in an email that outdoor recreation supports more than 197,000 jobs and generates $6.5 billion in wages and salaries across the state.
“With diverse outdoor assets and infrastructure, and a top-ranked workforce, Virginia is poised to continue to grow its outdoor economy,” she said.
Whereas traditional tourism is focused on volume or “heads in beds,” Mayer said, ecotourism is about sustainability. He described it as “more responsible, more discerned travel.”
Mayer said this kind of tourism builds environmental and cultural awareness and respect, supports biodiversity conservation and contributes to economic development. In simpler terms it has three areas of focus: people, planet and profit.
“That’s called the triple bottom line of sustainability,” Mayer said.
Ferrum officials believe the college is well-suited to offer such a program.
“Our whole campus is a park-like laboratory,” Mayer said, noting it has hiking and mountain biking trails, a climbing tower and ropes courses. Students can even fish at Adams Lake right in the heart of campus.
Ferrum Outdoors, a recreation group, takes students on trips and allows them to rent equipment to get outside. The college has mountain biking, rock climbing and fly fishing clubs. This summer, it added an outdoor classroom.
The ecotourism major is interdisciplinary, Mayer said, touching on topics such as protected area management, outdoor recreation, environmental science and business administration.
The program blends traditional classwork with experiential learning, which in this case means classes on nature guiding, trail building and fly fishing, among other things.
So, as any tuition-paying parent might ask, what does one do with an ecotourism degree?
Mayer shared numerous possibilities: You could start a guide business, become a park ranger, work as a nonprofit ecotourism development specialist or regional tourism director.
Prior to entering academia, Mayer worked with Peace Corps Mexico as an environmental education trainer.
“It’s not as impossible as it might seem, you know, to be paid to share your love of nature with people for a living,” he said.
Mayer hopes students who graduate from Ferrum’s ecotourism program will be “confident risk-takers,” the types who are bold enough to start their own business or company. He believes there’s plenty of opportunity for entrepreneurship in the field.
“They want a non-traditional education and then they want a non-traditional career,” Mayer said. “We say break out of the cubicle, make the blue skies your office.”