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Bridge Scholars Class Explores Equity in Outdoors

by Laurie Laker ’12

Colorado College enjoys some of the best access to outdoor recreation and education opportunities of any college in the country, possibly the world. With that access comes responsibilities of stewardship and sustainability, but also of equal opportunity and equity creation.

Students in the Bridge Scholars Program class Welcome to Colorful Colorado: Problems and Promises in the Great Outdoors tackle these issues head on, both in class and in the field.

The Bridge Scholars Program is a year-long program that invites first-generation college students, students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, and students from under resourced schools to participate in an early-start academic program at CC.

“National Park Service statistics, in addition to numerous studies and research, show that people of color aren’t visiting these spaces in proportion to their population numbers,” explains Director of Field Study Drew Cavin, who co-teaches the class with Assistant Professor of Education Tina Valtierra.

“Part of the problem is how we define who’s ‘outdoorsy’ and who gets to be included in that. The question of who’s outdoorsy, that’s been a particular idea and ideal — i.e. a white, male person — that’s been created by advertising, media, and the industry storytellers, perpetuating who is welcome in that space and who isn’t.”

Confronting systemic racism is at the heart of the work taking place in the class, with a specific focus on antiracism and equity in the outdoors and the outdoor industry. Upon entering the classroom space, students discuss appropriation of culture and the colonizing of lands; they also receive encouragement and reminders from professors that they “have immense power here in this place, and the ability to change it for the better — do not forget your agency.”

“The students are incredibly engaged, insightful, and all bring their own experience to the table from wherever they’re from,” says Cavin.

Cavin and Valtierra are both experts in different areas of the curriculum of this course. Cavin’s expertise lies in the outdoor industry and its efforts towards inclusivity, while Valtierra’s focus is on inclusivity in education. Valtierra and her colleague in the Department of Education, Associate Professor Manya Whitaker, collaborated on the recently published “Schooling Multicultural Teachers: A Guide for Program Assessment and Professional Development,” a guide that helps develop and expand teachers’ inclusive instructional practices.

“The challenges of this class are numerous — we’re two white professors, for example. I questioned that when I was asked to teach the class,” says Valtierra. “We try to model our own vulnerability and own our identities and positionalities in this space, while balancing product and process in the class.”

“There’s a lot of vulnerability in the class space, and a huge amount of different and heavy topics frontloaded, so we try to leave space for everyone to speak and be heard,” adds Cavin.

That aspect of leaving everyone space is at the heart of this course. While engaging with the outdoors at CC is by no means mandatory, there is a large facet of the college’s culture and community which focuses intensely on enjoying the outdoors for study and recreation. The students in this class, including Mar Wilson ’23, Adrian Larkspur ’23, and Willik Mir ’23, are all tackling questions about the outdoors that are at the forefront of inclusion and antiracism work across higher education and society as a whole.

“This class is completely different from what I want to study while at CC,” says Mar Wilson ’23, from Cleveland, Ohio, who wants to study Chinese medicine. “What it’s shown me is that I do have a passion for making the outdoors more inclusive, and how so many areas intersect in that work.”

That intersection is exemplified by the work of the National Park Service’s Western Regional offices, the central offices for managing and planning all NPS programming and park access in the west, as well as efforts towards inclusivity and safety in the region’s parks.

“Looking at the National Park Service, we read summaries of issues surrounding race and representation in the visitors the parks receive each year, and then we got to visit their field office to talk about it first-hand,” says Adrian Larkspur ’23 from Hilo, Hawaii.

“It’s really interesting to study the Colorado outdoor culture, because it’s so different to what I know from Hawaii. Taking that deep dive into that, it’s really exciting,” he says.

As a federal government agency, the National Park Service faces unique issues in implementing inclusive and equity-minded approaches to their programming.

“It’s great to see how they acknowledge these issues at all, particularly if they’re negative,” says Willik Mir ’23. “It’s so interesting to see how they’re in the middle of the ladder — not on the ground in the parks, nor in the D.C. headquarters — trying to implement and make changes.”

Bridge Scholars arrive two weeks prior to New Student Orientation for intensive interdisciplinary courses to experience the student-centered CC classroom and work closely with mentors to familiarize themselves with CC’s campus community, its facilities, and the opportunities available.

“It’s sort of funny; I’m trying to work out if CC is just more work in general, or more work on one topic at a time,” says Larkspur. “I’m used to juggling multiple subjects, as most kids in high school, but they’ve never been so focused before.”

Adapting to the Block Plan is never easy for anyone, but the Bridge Scholars have something of a leg up – that two-week head start.

“I think we’ve done a great job balancing work with fun,” says Wilson. “Yes, we’re staying up late, but we’re also making sure we do our work and focus. Our adjusting to the pace of the Block Plan will be really helpful.”

Bridge Scholars create bonds that last well beyond the two-week class. This is the crucible that forms fast and firm friendships, often lasting well beyond the Bridge experience.

“I’m excited to find my people, as additions to the ones I’ve found in Bridge,” says Mir.

“Bridge has been extremely welcoming,” adds Larkspur. “I’m hopeful that the rest of the year will be equally quirky and fun.”

“I’m ready to survive and enjoy my first year here, but in a smart way,” laughs Wilson.