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Take the Ozark Mountains, sprinkle in a little bit of the White River, scoop in some Mississippi River, a dash of hiking trails, and perhaps a pinch of rock climbing to open up a whole lot of possibilities. 

To get students outside and utilize the natural landscape of Arkansas, institutions like the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith (UAFS), Arkansas Tech University (ATU), and Lyon College are starting to build more and more outdoor programs.

For Lyon, the outdoor adventures, which started about eight years ago, are just the beginning, according to Austin Smith, Director of Outdoor Education and Recreation. There’s also a full bike shop in the Lyon Education and Adventure Program (LEAP) office that lets students learn how to work on their own bicycles. Plus, there are five miles of mountain bike trails around campus that Smith and his assistant maintain.

At UAFS, the outdoor program first developed in 2008, when staff decided to establish a committee and proposal for getting students active and outside. “We came together with staff from student affairs and sought out different people in the university community with expertise in different areas and brought them in to start the first semester,” explained Meighan Pendergrass, Director of Campus Recreation and Wellness.

Those first outdoor programs at UAFS launched in 2012 with geocaching, disc golf, canoeing and hiking. “We have a lot of great resources here in Arkansas within an hour of driving to Fort Smith, and there wasn’t anything planned, so we wanted to plan something for our students,” Pendergrass shared.

A coordinator now manages the adventures. “We plan everything for the student,” Pendergrass said. “All they do is go online and do an online registration link. We would take care of going there; we’d take care of rental. The student would pay the university and we’d provide the experience.”

Smith’s LEAP program at Lyon originated when a professor started extreme adventuring for students to get them outside, Smith explained. Now, adventure trips include multi-day travel to the Grand Canyon or down the White River. Spring break brings the opportunity to grab class credit with an outdoor leadership class. “There’s a lot of cool outdoor learning opportunities,” Smith said.

All three institutions offer equipment rentals at no cost to students, with UAFS offering just hammocks for now with room to grow, while Lyon and ATU provide items such as bikes, hammocks, canoes, and kayaks. Lyon has additional items in the form of paddle boards, tents, stoves and backpacks, and will only add financial charges if there’s damage or an item has been stolen. ATU will charge a five dollar late fee per day up to five days. “If they fail to return or it’s stolen, we do potentially charge a replacement fee, which does not necessarily cover the full cost of the equipment, but gives a sense of accountability to them,” said Steven Walton, graduate assistant in Outdoor Recreation at ATU.

ATU offers the equipment rentals, bike repair shop, outdoor adventures and a climbing gym. All students with valid ATU ID can get free climbing passes.

Lyon’s program includes the rentals, the bike shop, the on-campus mountain biking and disc golf, along with a bouldering wall and a challenge course, open to the community, that runs year-round with elements like a zip line, a giant swing, and group building elements like a team wall and ladder. “They have to work together if they want to complete the activity,” Smith explained.

While there is no charge for equipment rental, the adventure trips at Lyon do carry some cost to the student, which is heavily subsidized by the university. A trip that might otherwise cost $500 ends up costing about $200. “It’s much more affordable,” said Smith. “This program creates a huge difference in life and overall happiness at a school known to be pretty tough. They can get out and unwind.”

The programs not only help provide the opportunity for active mind and bodies, but students are able to make connections. “If they both happen to be a part of an intramural team, this gives them the chance to meet a friend they wouldn’t have otherwise met in their college years,” Walton explained.

And then there are the life skills that can be developed on such adventures. “The goal is for students to have fun, exciting and adventure-based experiences,” said Pendergrass. “We want them to join the adventure, learn a new skill, meet new friends and explore beyond campus.”

The outdoor programs and on-campus offerings have given the colleges a bit of a recruiting edge.

ATU’s Time Out for Tech grants Campus Recreation the opportunity set up a table and share the program with high school seniors looking to learn more about programs and life on campus. “Quite a few came up to me quite impressed,” said Walton. “‘I didn’t know this sort of stuff was offered here.’ This is a service or privilege offered to the students, and they really appreciate that.”

Likewise, Smith has found that the program has captured the interest of potential students. “A dad came up to me and said his son was coming to Lyon because of our program,” Smith shared. “I think that’s a neat thing we have going on.”