The first university-based outdoor business program east of the Mississippi

Starting this spring, Western Carolina University will offer a new certificate program for aspiring outdoor industry professionals.
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Aerial shot of a university campus with green mountains in the background.

The main campus of Western Carolina University, where the new program will be offered. Courtesy.

University programs focused on the outdoor industry are few and far between, but starting this spring, Western Carolina University will offer students one more option.

The four-year university in Cullowhee, North Carolina, announced the launch of its Professional Outdoor Industry certificate program last week. The program, which consists of eight online workshops, offers coursework focused on the business side of the outdoor industry.

“Where there’s need, where there’s value, where we have talent, that’s really how we pursue building a program,” associate director of professional development Jill Thompson said.

The certificate program breaks down into two tracks: Leadership and Management, concentrated on leadership and communication skills, and Small Businesses/Entrepreneurship, focused on brand-making and launching successful startups. The courses are non-credit, but do offer certificates of completion such as continuing education units (CEUs).

Both tracks are situated on the business-leadership side of the outdoor industry, and as such, WCU is mostly tapping existing law and business professors, as well as other faculty, to teach the courses. Helping tailor the courses to the needs of the outdoor industry is Andy Coburn, who currently serves as WCU’s Outdoor Industry Liaison.

A new type of certificate program

The concept of an outdoor industry program in higher education isn’t a new one. Undergraduate students can pursue a bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Product Design and Development at Utah State University, and Western Colorado University offers an Outdoor Industry MBA program. For current outdoor industry professionals, the Outdoor Industry Association offers a certificate program of its own, which taps expertise at both Utah State University and Western Colorado University to help professionals hone their skills.

Coburn, who has been working to develop outdoor industry programming at WCU for years, saw a gap in the coverage of those offerings; neither offered robust resources for post-grads looking to bring their own ideas to the outdoor industry.

“We’re targeting small businesses and entrepreneurs,” Coburn said. “These one-, two-, three-person startup companies that have this passion to do something but need the background in the business, the background in leadership, to make that business successful.”

That reasoning is why, in WCU’s program, courses like “Basics of Project Management” and “Introduction to the Outdoor Industry” run alongside ones similar to those offered through OIA. The program is designed to be broad, Coburn said, to provide the initial education necessary for entry into the outdoor industry.

Notably absent from WCU’s certificate program—for now—is a concentration based around product design, which both OIA’s program and Utah State’s undergraduate degree have. WCU is developing a “Product Design and Manufacture” track for the program, which Coburn hopes to add in the near future. For this initial launch, however, the university wanted to get the simplest version of the program off the ground first.

“Since we already had the core for those two tracks in place, those were the low-hanging fruit,” Coburn said.

Outdoor education on the east coast

Also important is the fact that the existing programs at Utah State, Western Colorado University, and OIA are all are based in the West. WCU’s certificate program is the first of its kind east of the Mississippi—something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by outdoor recreation groups in the region. Noah Wilson, who serves as board secretary of the North Carolina Outdoor Recreation Coalition, noted the importance of having a program specific to a region often overlooked in outdoor industry education.

“It’s claiming that space in an important way, and saying look, we have thousands of companies based in this state and the surrounding area who all need these trainings,” Wilson said. “It’s important to have the knowledge base built here, to have the support networks built here, that can then go on to develop more of this industry.”

And because WCU sees the certification program as a first foray into a larger field, more expansion could be coming. Coburn cited a number of projects in development at WCU, including several degree programs focused on product design and business development in the outdoor industry. The Professional Outdoor Industry Certificate will provide a testing ground for these programs, allowing the university to figure out how much demand there is for outdoor industry education.

Multiple ways to engage

Courses in the program can be taken individually or as part of a certificate track. Registration is currently open on WCU’s website and has no set deadline, though classes have limited availability. Spots are granted on a first-come, first-served basis with priority given to those who register for the eight-course certificate program.

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