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Edging the Appalachian mountains of southeastern Kentucky, the famed Wilderness Road spanning the east, and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park just 30 miles away, Union College might have been content to serve nearby students and accept its spectacular but remote location as a liability.

Instead, leaders at the private liberal arts college in Barbourville chose to “own” the wilderness around them and let nature use her many charms to both attract students and impart her wisdom to them.

“We do this by weaving wilderness adventures and opportunities into the fabric of Union’s life,” says Brenna Wallhausser, director of college communications. “This allows us to showcase the stunning natural beauty of our region, foster respect and awe for the natural world, and use outdoor adventures as a metaphor for the nature of a liberal arts education.”

The college, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, has a tradition of literally and metaphorically choosing poet Robert Frost’s legendary road less traveled.

The school was founded in 1879 when Barbourville, the closest community, was little more than three brick buildings and 450 people. Survival, not higher education, was the mantra of the day. The folks of Barbourville, however, were convinced that having a college for their children was essential.

Today, some 130 years later, the school has 800 undergraduates and 700 graduate students. They come from 27 states and 14 countries, and this year’s freshman class is the largest in 21 years. Most come to Union College for the liberal arts education and the 12:1 student/teacher ratio. Increasingly, however, the rugged landscape enveloping the school is also a factor.

A natural fit
Amy Russell, a senior from Monticello, is majoring in recreation management, a degree program custom fit for the school’s location and her interests. Russell hopes to become a park manager or an interpretive ranger.

“When I was young, I always enjoyed being outdoors,” says Russell. “I lived on a farm all my life. I’m also a people person. I like to talk to people.”

Those two interests meld perfectly in recreation management. Courses include wilderness management, wilderness survival, recreation visitor behavior, park planning and design, recreational programming, administration of recreation services, environmental ethics, and more. Once they complete a core program, students select an area of concentration in leisure service management, outdoor experiential education, or natural resources recreation management.

Everything about the major is “right up my alley,” says the coed. The focus is mainly on tourism, she says, anything that deals with people and their interest in the outdoors. That dovetails nicely with Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo’s goal of increasing adventure tourism.

Russell is also president of the Appalachian Wilderness Club and a member of the school’s cycling team, two more examples of how the environment helps students discover who they are and who they want to become.

The Appalachian Wilderness Club is a longstanding club that provides students with outdoor adventures throughout the year. They explore caves, trails, natural arches, most anything outdoors. The success of AWC led the college to form UC Outdoors, an institutionally funded program that offers adventures for all students, faculty, and staff in hiking, climbing, rappelling, caving, backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, and adventure racing (which combines orienteering, hiking, trail running, mountain biking, rappelling, climbing, and paddling.

UC Outdoors is the college’s way of ensuring that every member of the school stays connected to the outdoors, Wallhausser says.

The cycling team, which competes in mountain bike racing, is also a natural offshoot of the college’s focus on the outdoors. Although not an official sport at Union College until 1998, the team garnered a national championship in 2002 and has finished in the top 10 at nationals each of the past seven years.

The school’s two service organizations—Bonner Scholars and Common Partners—also employ the outdoors to teach leadership development. All members of the organizations go through low-ropes and high-ropes adventures at an outdoor leadership center in Monticello, according to Wallhausser.

“The activity reinforces team-building, problem-solving, goal-setting, confidence, and overcoming obstacles,” she says. “New Bonner Scholars also take a first-year trip that involves white-water rafting on the French Broad River. This experience is critical to promoting teamwork in new Bonners and helping them overcome fears.”

Go outside and learn
Even students who are not naturally adventurous or outdoorsy get a formal introduction to the natural world during Welcome Weekend. Wallhausser says one day each August is set aside for mandatory outdoor adventures. Freshmen choose between hiking, caving, canoeing, kayaking, rappelling, or white-water rafting.

“This is a perfect way for students to build community,” Wallhausser says. “On an outdoor adventure, students have to talk to each other and get to know each other and support each other.

“Another reason an outdoor adventure is mandatory is that not all students know what a liberal arts education really is, what that means. Going into the wilderness is a perfect metaphor for a liberal arts education. It is transformational just as a liberal arts education is transformational. In both cases, students grapple with the unknown and are changed in the process. A liberal arts education, just like the wilderness, is not intended to provide the answers—it’s a landscape where you learn to grapple, seemingly sometimes in the dark, with tough questions and choices.”

Be afraid
Andy Messer, director of outdoor programs and assistant professor of recreation management, says the outdoor experiences provide another important avenue for growth, one that might only be found in untamed environments.

“By our very nature, people have to be challenged,” Messer says. “One way or another, we seek that out. In an era where we are more and more separated from nature, we especially need challenge and adventure in the context of natural settings. With young people in particular, who are using technology more and are less apt to be outside, I think that is something we can offer them.”

Messer says the fear often associated with adventure is an excellent teacher.

“We need fear,” he says. “That is easily borne out by how many people watch scary movies. It’s all too easy to get into ruts, whether personal or intellectual. Sometimes getting in situations where we are afraid can help us step outside our ruts. We don’t want to put people in situations that are crazy dangerous; we want to have an appropriate margin of safety. But people need to be in situations that scare them. You find that the most rewarding experiences are things that are really frightening to us.”

Besides the growth, students at Union College also often develop a deep respect for the beauty of the region, which can lead them into environmental advocacy.

“Last semester, students formed Appalachians for a Cleaner Environment,” Wallhausser says. Their two big issues are mountaintop removal and recycling.

Some students arrive with a love of nature. David Pope, an alumnus of the college, is one such person.

“I was always an outdoors kid—hunting, fishing, and playing in the woods,” recalls Pope. “I always wanted to work in national parks. In the ’70s, there was a huge environmental movement.Conservation officers, as they were called then, came to our school and told tales of saving the environment. I thought, wow, one of these days I am going to do that. But when you get out of high school, life happens. I got diverted for 15 years.”

At 33, Pope decided to return to college and chose Union because it was close to Corbin, where he made his home with his wife and children, and because they offered him a mountain biking scholarship. Pope returned to college to become a teacher like his wife. He didn’t know the school had a degree in recreation management, or for that matter that such a degree existed.

“I had my sights set on education,” Pope says. “My dream was a job as a teacher, but I switched over pretty quick when I found out about the recreation major.”

A 2007 graduate, Pope is now facilities services assistant at Cumberland Gap National Park.

Big world, small classes
Throughout his education, Pope also happily discovered he really liked another aspect of Union College—its small student-teacher radio.

“I liked that Union was small,” he says. “I know that now more than then. In big classes, you don’t get that go-to-the-professor-and-ask-questions kind of thing. The small class size helped me a lot.”

Back on campus, Amy Russell agrees.

“I went to a small high school, Wayne County High School in Monticello,” says Russell. “I knew this was a small school where everyone knows everyone else, and I like knowing everyone else. The one-on-one with professors is a great thing to have. It feels like another family.”

The nature around Russell provides comfort as well.

“I would rather be sitting on the side of a pond with a fishing pole than anything,” Russell says. Recently, she introduced a fellow student to fishing, which Russell says gave her a “great feeling.” Soon, she hopes to lead others to the peace, joy, and challenge she finds in nature just as Union College led her to craft a life from it.


Nestled inside a natural wonderland, surrounded by four state parks, Union College is also a picture postcard of a small liberal arts school with its Georgian architecture and overhanging elms. That liberal arts tradition is a focal point for all students, regardless of their major.

The undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, which all students must complete, includes coursework in the applied sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. The graduate program offers advanced degrees in education and psychology.

The college also encourages students to develop their own life philosophy as part of, or in addition to, a final project. Each department approaches this overarching goal differently, according to Brenna Wallhausser, director of college communications. For example, during the final senior class, “Philosophy of Recreation,” recreation management majors are required to write a 15-20 page research paper that outlines the development of leisure philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to the present. Students must also incorporate their personal leisure philosophy.

In history and religion, seniors take a capstone course, “Philosophy of Life,” that is similar in intent to that in recreation management. A research paper is also their final project. In mass communication, students must produce a statement of philosophy on lifelong learning and produce a 30-minute documentary or short film as a final project.

“The ultimate goal is graduates who see being educated as a quality of mind, not simply an accumulation of facts,” says Wallhausser.

For more about Union College, go online to


“An appreciation for eastern Kentucky’s natural resources has become so intertwined with Union’s identity that it manifests itself in seemingly indirect ways as well,” says Brenna Wallhausser, director of college communications at Union.

One of those ways is a $4.2 million energy conservation initiative the college completed in 2007. That project included geothermal heating and cooling for four of the college’s buildings, as well as many other improvements, including new windows, upgraded lighting, and enhanced insulation.

“We are all about the environment at Union College,” says Steven Hoskins, chief financial officer. “Geothermal is very environmentally friendly.”

Geothermal systems take advantage of heat within the earth, require no fossil fuels to operate, and are generally undetectable on the surface.

At Union, the energy savings are also fiscally friendly. Hoskins says the school expects to see a $2.37 million return on their investment through energy savings on this project over 15 years. The savings will actually help fund the project.


Outdoorsy folks speak their own language, so if you want to venture out more, check out this informative and fun list of definitions: wilderness speak.

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