Best value outdoor adventure college

Educating a new breed of outdoor leaders

It is propitious on the 200th anniversary of the birth of beloved American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, that we reflect on lessons he learned in the woods. He put it this way: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau’s reflection on learning in the woods reminds us of a time 30 years ago when we first visited Paul Smith’s College – a somewhat spartan forestry school at that time – clearly distinguishable from its current contemporary, yet still beautiful campus. Then and now, the campus is bordered by a necklace of blue lakes and green forests. These days, the Paul Smith’s College campus boasts state-of-the-art campus amenities like the Joan Weill Adirondack Library, Joan Weill Student Center, Saunders Sports Complex, The Palm at Paul Smith’s College, St. Regis CafÁ©, and A.P. Smith’s Bakery.

Remarkably, what hasn’t changed is that Paul Smith’s students – a.k.a. Smitties – still possess a spirit of adventure – a genuine curiosity about adventure learning that comes with the waters, woods, mountains, and wildlife of the Adirondacks. For decades, Smitties have come to the campus to canoe, climb, fish, kayak, and have wilderness expeditions. Significantly, Paul Smith’s College is still a place to learn by doing – on a bucolic campus nestled in 14,000 acres of lakes and forested lands – an awesome outdoor learning laboratory.

Paul Smith’s students have the unique opportunity to own their education and craft the individualized learning and career preparation experience that they want. Smitties are able to develop real world experiences by working directly with faculty members in the classroom, marsh, woods, and lab. Every bachelor’s degree graduate creates a capstone project that reflects their professional interests and highlights their cumulative learning experiences. Students can take advantage of credit bearing experiential learning opportunities such as summer field science classes, the National Outdoor Leadership School/Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Leadership Semester, and living and learning communities focused on ecology and leadership development. They actively participate in hands-on outdoor adventures – like mountain climbing, hiking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, natural park expeditions, skiing, snowboarding, and extreme sports.

Walden: the Graphic Novel describes the research work of Professor Curt Stager and his students on the pond in Massachusetts made famous by Thoreau. Stager argues that Thoreau is often seen as promoting isolation, when he actually favored experiencing nature so as to engage more fully with others. This applies to the mission of Paul Smith’s itself, which resides in a forested park, yet provides teaching, research, and service to the world.

Paul Smith’s College students are passionate about outdoor adventure, environmental preservation, and saving endangered species. These aspirations and competencies are in high demand by employers in corporate and not-for-profit settings – such as, global Fortune 500 companies; national parks; world-class eco-tourism and adventure outfitters; state and federal environmental, conservation, and natural resource management agencies; and private forestry and arboriculture companies.

Paul Smith College alumni include corporate luminaires like John Dillon, former Chairman and CEO of International Paper; Jon Luther, former Chairman and CEO of Dunkin’ Brands; the late Steven Ross, former CEO of Time Warner; and Wally Ganzi, Jr., Co-Chairman and Co-Owner of The Palm Restaurants and Palm Restaurant Group.

Students and alumni report being attracted to Paul Smith’s College because they appreciate the “wet boots” learning practiced there. Scores of students work each summer as park stewards, helping stem the spread of invasive species in New York State. Students evaluate, select and mark trees which are then cut and sold from the College’s forests. Students carry out water quality and tick research which guides public policy. They design trails, run the bakery, and learn through outdoor adventures, expeditions, camping, and portaging. Students especially value the one-to-one faculty mentorships – allowing for in-depth exposure to countless discoveries through learning and living in the outdoors. It is this unique combination of these elements, which makes Paul Smith’s College a new breed of best value outdoor adventure college.

With this in mind, we offer this simple prescription to guide and inform a Best Value Outdoor Adventure College Index:

1.     Provide opportunities for students to actually learn, discover, and experiment firsthand by getting their hands dirty and feet wet outdoors

2.     Teach the value of teamwork and individual responsibility – never leaving a classmate or teammate hanging

3.     Learn, live, and teach the value of perseverance, persistence, and self-esteem

4.     Provide opportunities to build a sense of outdoor stewardship, civic commitment to sustainability, and establish a reverence for Mother Nature

5.     Learn and teach prudent outdoor risk-taking and thoughtful decision-making

6.     Learn and teach outdoor survival skills, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that comes with learning and working outdoors

7.     Provide opportunity for self-discovery through programs that encapsulate the holistic outdoor adventure college learning experience

Increased interest in the life lessons learned in the woods has prompted the development of rankings for adventure and outdoor colleges and universities – providing students and parents with some helpful, yet insufficient data on student success. Illustrative examples include the 20 Best Colleges and Universities for Outdoor Adventures ( and 10 Best Colleges for People Who Love the Great Outdoors (

Having recognized garden variety adventure and outdoor college rankings, Paul Smith’s College is proactively exploring the creation of a new kind of Outdoor Adventure College Index that focuses on unique market distinguishers – key predictors of the most successful outdoor adventure colleges based on student academic and career outcomes.

Paul Smith’s College President Cathy Dove, put it best this way:

At Paul Smith’s, our students receive a “personalized education,” which “includes learning life-skills valued by employers including teamwork, problem-solving and understanding of economic and environmental issues facing the world. An overarching theme is that our students are in high demand by employers and also successful getting into graduate school should they choose” –  students receive “applied learning that leads to skills that employers highly value, leading our alumni to have robust careers.”

The global megatrend of deep care for the environment will shape the future career interests of college bound students. This is especially true for those drawn to the outdoors by the excitement of adventure leadership; social responsibility for saving the Planet and protecting our indigenous environment; and an authentic sense of discovery and experimentation. The best students of the future want to push the limits of human performance beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom.

—James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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