Porter James had settled on attending Mississippi State which, like many land grant institutions, has a wildlife science curriculum. But when James heard about the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program at the University of Montevallo, he changed his mind.
“I heard about this program and did a 180,” said James, a sophomore at Montevallo from Russellville. “I said, ‘I’ve got to check this out.’ I’m glad I did. The experiences I’ve had in this program are unbelievable.”
The President’s Outdoor Scholars Program mixes courses from different schools within the university to create a degree that students can use to establish an outdoors-related career.
After three years, the program has grown from an initial group of eight students to 39 this year. Students in the program qualify for scholarships from $1,000 to $3,000 annually if they maintain a 2.5 GPA.
The program is the brainchild of Montevallo President John Stewart. An avid fisherman and waterfowl hunter as a teenager living in rural Delaware, he was cut off from the outdoors sports he loved when he attended college.
“I really could only hunt and fish when I went home for Christmas and a little in the summer,” Stewart said. “Being in college really limited my opportunity to hunt and fish. And I wasn’t able to do it with my best friends. And I thought what a rich experience it would be if we could bring kids together in college who shared that passion.”
Stewart was looking for a way to set Montevallo apart from other colleges in Alabama. He drew on his own experience.
“In our part of the world, what do kids think most about other than football and each other?” Stewart asked. “That might be hunting and fishing.”
His idea was originally to start an extra-curricular program that allowed students to stay engaged with outdoor activities while they were in school. He turned to veteran higher education administrator William Crawford, an outdoorsman who owns a retriever training kennel.
“He wanted to start a program that kept students plugged in to the outdoors,” Crawford said. “He felt like with my background and my love of the outdoors, I could do this.”
Initially Crawford set up hunting and fishing excursions for students. But most of the students wanted something more.
“The problem was that we kept getting pounded with the question, ‘What do I major in,’” Crawford said. “We told them, come in and major in something and we’ll find a way of tying it back into the outdoors. That was the direction we were going but we knew there was still more out there.”
Crawford’s answer was to work through Montevallo’s Interdisciplinary Program, which allows students to design their own major. If they want to major in something that Montevallo doesn’t offer, they can take courses from different departments and put them together for an interdisciplinary major.
Among the degrees offered in the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program is outdoor resource marketing. It takes traditional business management and marketing courses and blends them with environmental science courses to create a degree more specifically targeted to the needs of outdoors-oriented employers.
“What I plan on doing is pulling classes from different majors to make myself more marketable to companies in the outdoor industry,” James said.
But it isn’t all classroom work. An important aspect of the program is keeping students in touch with the outdoors. That means getting them into the field to do the things they enjoy most.
Adam Carroll, a freshman from Carrollton, Georgia, knew he wanted to attend a college where he could be on a fishing team. Montevallo has a competitive team that produced professional angler Clent Davis. The President’s Outdoor Scholars Program made the college that much more attractive to Carroll.
“Through the Outdoor Scholars Program, I’ve already met a lot of people and done a lot of cool stuff,” Carroll said.
Among the things Carroll participated in was a guided redfish fishing trip in Venice, Louisiana. Stewart took a party of four to the Bahamas trolling for blue marlin. Other students took a Louisiana hunting trip and visited the Duck Commander headquarters made famous by the Duck Dynasty television show.
Trips are expensive. But Stewart said the outdoors industry has been receptive to the program and the college has found sponsors to pay for excursions. Montgomery-based Buckmasters has sponsored trips and scholarships. Outdoor companies hope the program will eventually pay dividends.
“A lot of these outdoor companies are small,” Crawford said. “A lot of these companies hire people with the skills they need but they don’t have the knowledge of the outdoors. We feel like we can give them the skill set they need, along with a knowledge of the outdoors. It will make them much more marketable.”
Most of the program’s students are business majors but the program also trains them to work for nonprofits and in communications-related fields. An outdoors television show can come to them for a videographer who also hunts or fishes. Crawford said Montevallo wants to take the program even further by establishing its own curriculum eventually.
“We’re in the process of building a lodge on campus to house our students and our program,” Crawford said. “We’ve been looking forward to having a place our program can call home.”
For now, the program is growing. Crawford said he expects to cap it at around 50 students. Montevallo is a small college that wants students to get personal attention from professors. With more than 50 students, that would be hard to maintain.
“What we do as an institution is help students indulge their passions and prepare them for their lives and careers,” Stewart said. “Not many institutions out there are preparing students for careers in the outdoor industry.”