Outside Recreation adventures result in lofty, enjoyable jobs

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GCU graduate Katie McKenna acquired valuable skills on outdoor recreation trips that led to a job at REI.

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

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

Chase Barnett was responsible for the safety and happiness of travelers who splurged to see Yellowstone National Park and was the hired guide in just his second week on the job.

“We had to roll the punches, get hotel rooms and flip what we were going to do, and do it all with a smile,” said Barnett, who had to tell people in his group they wouldn’t see much of Yellowstone. “That is the nature of leadership. You will find yourself in some difficult situations, and you do your best to make sure the people around you are having fun no matter what.

He acquired this ability at Grand Canyon University. Even though the university is in the middle of a big city and doesn’t have an outdoor recreation degree, its solid outdoor recreation program gives many students skills they use to find jobs in the outdoor industry after graduation — even if they have an engineering degree , marketing, science or entrepreneurial studies, like Barnett.

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

The Yellowstone voyage was his second expedition as a tour guide in Jackson, Wyoming for Backroads, an international tour company.

“It was equally rewarding and exhausting at the same time. You have to be at your A game all the time. If your priority is to get someone’s vacation, you need to put other people first all the time. On the other hand, I used to go whitewater rafting today,” said the 2022 graduate. “Even though I’m physically exhausted, you step back for a moment and realize that what you do for a living is just amazing.”

His career path took a turn after he landed a position as a student guide at Outdoor Recreation during his junior year, and he learned the joy of bringing others into the great outdoors to share his passion for wild places. And there he learned to make the best of the unpredictable.

He led a GCU paddleboarding tour on the Colorado River through Horseshoe Bend. It only rained on the first day.

“You just look at yourself and all the participants and you decide, well, we’re really doing this and there’s no going back, so our only option is to have a good attitude,” he said. “We came back to camp and it totally changed the journey for us. You get through a long day and eventually the sun comes out.”

Student leaders participate in wilderness first responder training and other backcountry skills courses to guide students who sign up for adventure trips, 113 of which are planned for the next school year throughout the Southwest and nearby hotspots in the beautiful Arizona countryside.

“You’re not just learning how to make a fire or pitch a tent,” he says Chad Schlundt, Outdoor Recreation Manager. “They are examples of experiential education down to the smallest detail. They learn to lead their peers, which is the most difficult. Many of them know really well how to build relationships. I find a lot of employers hire them for those skills.”

It also helps to have public speaking experience, quick thinking and problem-solving skills, and nerves of steel to keep your cool while evacuating the field during a thunderstorm.

Schlundt maintains a running list of dozens of employers, from tour guides, camps, outfitters and contractors, where former executives are now earning wages.

“Dude, Chad,” former student Moria Leuthauser recently told him in Outdoor Speech, “My experience with Outdoor Rec got me this job (leading adaptive outdoor recreational adventures with veterans and others with disabilities for a company called No Barriers).

“They were so impressed that I knew how to make a contingency plan.”

Others also said they developed an appreciation for nature.

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

Katie McKenna finds joy in the great outdoors.

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

The most memorable journeys have often been the ones with challenges.

While leading a climb in Nevada, McKenna and a co-leader misread the map and ended up going down a very difficult route that they couldn’t finish.

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

Schlundt said that’s what attracts employers to GCU students—a Christian college experience that inspires a high level of friendliness and trustworthiness that they bring to outdoor adventures.

McKenna said the result of her experience and wilderness certifications in the program was that she landed a job as a guide for REI. The 2019 graduate is now the regional day tour program coordinator for REI.

“What we did for Outdoor Rec—handling permits, planning, liaison with guests, travel—is like six different jobs at REI, so it’s been really impactful,” she said. “Most schools and outdoor programs don’t offer that.”

Even more atypical for us was the path to an outdoor job Scott MartinMechanical engineering graduate 2020.

He uses the skills he learned as a tour guide at Outdoor Recreation and on the Canyon Activity Center’s climbing wall to land a job that combines both his climbing skills and engineering degree.

Scott Martin takes a selfie high on a tower.

Martin climbs and inspects cell towers, sometimes as high as 1,000 feet, for tower engineering professionals.

“I never thought these two would get together, but that was a strength when I was hired. They knew I was a climber and not afraid of heights,” he said.

Martin was recently married in Utah – to Cora (Bythrow) Martin, who was also involved with Outdoor Recreation and now works at REI – and he was able to share with Schlundt and many other alumni who were there how he travels across the country on inspections high above the earth’s surface. He remembers what draws him outside.

“Don’t worry. You’re up in the clouds with the birds right now, looking out over the land,” he said. “It’s peaceful.”

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

“First, understand the importance of failure and not letting it get you down,” Barnett said. “Failing often and quickly and learning from it is the fastest way to personal growth.”

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

“If everyone can take a step back every once in a while and count their blessings from a bird’s-eye view — I’ve got a roof over my head, I’ve got food on the table and people to support me, and it’s sunny today — you know, they’re them things that matter.”

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

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