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WIU Alumni Credit RPTA Programming for Launching their Love of Sustainable Outdoor Adventures

February 18, 2021


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MACOMB, IL – While Nate and Kelly Bricker met and fell in love in the 1980s because of Western Illinois University, a love affair with outdoor recreation and eco-tourism was also born thanks to the Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration (RPTA) department and its faculty.

The two credit the program with not only bringing them together personally, but also helping them develop their extensive professional careers in outdoor education. The pair now teaches at the University of Utah and have created a wide variety of programming to help their students explore the outdoors and learn how to be good stewards of the land.

Nate and Kelly first met when Nate was finishing his junior year at Western and Kelly was starting her master's degree. She was working at the Florida National High Adventure Sea Base in Islamorada, when Nate inquired about a summer job. Both traveled twice on WIU's Environmental Conservation Outdoor Education Expedition (ECOEE) trips, which take students on a semester-long adventure exploring the United States and its outdoor spaces.

"We traveled all over," remembered Kelly. "We spent 24 days in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and went all over the west learning how our public lands are managed, including national parks and public lands. We also learned about leadership in the outdoors, visiting those that ran programs such as Outward Bound, NOLS, the Atwood Outdoor Education Center, Land Between the Lakes and many other outdoor education centers and camps."

After leaving WIU, Nate and Kelly worked for an international adventure travel company called Sobek Expeditions, worked overseas in Nepal and Indonesia, and eventually traveled for World Heritage, guiding in 30-plus countries. Kelly later received her doctoral degree from The Penn State University in 1998. While supporting a trip as guides to Fiji, they were asked to scout two rivers, the Upper Navua and Wainikoriluva.

"We saw so much beauty and potential for an ecotourism program in the rural highlands of Viti Levu," she said.

Nate and Kelly were up for another adventure, moving to Fiji to start Rivers Fiji in 1998. As a whitewater rafting and sea kayaking ecotourism operation, Rivers Fiji works in partnership with nine mataqali (family groups) and two villages to conserve 18 kilometers of a remote river corridor, and ultimately the families along the river supported by this unique ecosystem. Kelly also held her first faculty position at the University of the South Pacific, located in Suva, Fiji.

After four years in Fiji, and getting the project off and running, they moved back to the United States, and Nate received his master's degree from West Virginia University, while Kelly accepted a position as assistant professor there.

After the Brickers returned to the U.S., and higher education at WVU, they developed Expedition Fiji, a study abroad class developed through the University of Utah.

"It's a truly bonding class," said Kelly. "The students are together for a month learning about the sustainability of tourism, marine environments and small island nations. They come away with a new perspective, including that we don't need all the stuff we have, and they can learn all of those things in one place."

Today, Nate works with the U Explore program at the University of Utah, which includes 70 weekend outdoor education classes that take place in Utah and Colorado for between one and three credits. Courses include skiing and snowboarding, kayaking, ice climbing and a basic camping class.

"We still carry the experiential education flag Dr. Frank Lupton gave us," said Kelly.

During COVID-19, the Brickers have been meeting with Lupton and several WIU alumni over Zoom to talk about their careers and life experiences. The sessions are facilitated by Horn Field Campus Director Mindy Pheiffer.

"There is truly so much amazing in this world," said Nate. "Kelly and I, and so many others, have Dr. Lupton to thank for turning us on to that; for helping us to see beyond the confines of our own self-imposed limitations, expanding our comfort zones, and for realizing 'the sun is shining, the birds are singing and it's a great day to be alive.' Both of us have spent a fair amount of time in higher education and we've learned heaps, but the greatest educational impact in our lives has always been ECOEE."

Nate and Kelly are still in touch with many of the WIU alumni they traveled with during the ECOEE trips and a few were part of their wedding.

Kelly added that the four ECOEE trips between the couple included "catalyzing moments" that cemented their passion for conservation.

"We both recall vividly that part of our education," Kelly said. "How many courses can you recall 40-plus years later so many details of the program? ECOEE launched our careers in adventure-based tourism and we are forever grateful. The lessons learned and experiences were so meaningful, life lessons, such as getting through difficult times; it taught us resilience. All undergraduates should have such an opportunity – it changes your life in so many positive ways."

For more information about ECOEE at WIU, visit wiu.edu/ECOEE.

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (JK-Pospeschil@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations