Rick Cravens has a major passion for the outdoors, be it bicycling, backpacking, canoeing or climbing a rock wall.
He has yet to jump out of a perfectly good airplane thousands of feet in the air. But that moment is coming in late April.
"I might chicken out as it gets closer," joked Cravens, assistant director of adventure and intramural recreation with Campus Recreation at Columbus State University.
Simply put, Cravens is the lead outdoor adventures organizer for a program designed to bring students together in fun and challenging situations, help them bond and develop friendships, and hopefully be more likely to stick with their educational pursuits until a university diploma is firmly in their grasps.
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It was last August that CSU launched a renewed emphasis on the "adventure" aspect of the program, with Chip Reese, the university's dean of students, tapping Cravens, a Hardaway High and CSU grad, to put some zip into the effort.
That's zip as in zip lining, one of many activities and trips scheduled through April for small groups of students. Already there have been rock-wall climbing, kayak and scuba classes, as well as a hike in Providence Canyon.
Coming up through April are opportunities for students to ride horses in Pine Mountain, take a climbing trip to Kentucky, canoe the Flint River and, of course, feel the rush of whitewater rafting on the Chattahoochee River. And there's the skydiving trip toward the end of the schedule.
There are a few free classes, but most have a small fee to cover costs, other than the $200 for the Kentucky jaunt or $110 to leap out of an airplane. But, Cravens said, CSU certainly is not in it to make a profit.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Cravens, 55, recently about his job, the adventure program, and his love for the outdoors. This interview is edited a bit for clarity.
So part of your focus is helping students bond and stay in school?
It's been proven if a student's involved in something at a university, they persist and graduate. If they're involved with the Saber, our school paper, or ROTC, any type of club or sororities, if they're active in going to athletic events, they form that bond with CSU and other people ... then they're more likely to graduate.
Was the whitewater course downtown the impetus for a more formal adventure program?
That was part of it. We've had an informal outdoor adventures program for years. We used to do some yearly ski trips out to Colorado. We've done some backpacking and some canoeing. The snow skiing to Colorado dropped off about five years ago when the airline prices really went crazy on us and the cost to go out there kind of nipped that in the bud. But that's something we'll try again, probably next year.
There's a good variety of activities and trips on the schedule. Are all of these new to the program?
We've done little day hikes to Providence Canyon before. We've gone up to the Pine Mountain Trail. But nothing like going up to Kentucky or zip lining or the rafting or things like that. ... The most talked-about event is the skydiving. We probably have the trip filled now.
Have you ever done skydiving?
I have never done it. It's a tandem skydive and you hook up with somebody and jump out of the plane.
How do you figure out what activities will attract students?
We go online and look at other universities. We go to conferences. We sit down and talk to other outdoor recreation professionals. And then we have a committee of students, who tell us: 'Rick, we would like to try this, this and this.' All of the stuff on our list isn't going to make it, but we try it. We'll find something that's hot, that people really want to do and keep on offering it. If it doesn't (draw participants), maybe we'll wait another year or two and try to reintroduce it.
So the schedule will be constantly evolving?
It has to be. It goes in trends. Like now, we've got a bunch of people into rock climbing and that's why we're offering climbing trips. When those people go away (graduate), we don't know if someone is going to take their place. We might have a group of folks that are really into backpacking, so we'll start offering more backpacking trips.
But the standard stuff, like horseback riding, that's been a surprise and a huge success. It's amazing how many people have never even touched a horse. I guess that's the neat thing about outdoor adventures, you give students the opportunity to do stuff they've never done before.
And our society is changing. I ask the kids: 'Why haven't you ever done anything like this,' and they say, 'Well, my parents never introduced me to something like this.' And there's the social media and so many gaming options out there and it's crazy, people just aren't as active.
That's the thing about outdoor adventures is you give them an opportunity to participate in something in college and, hopefully, it will turn into a lifetime activity. It happened to me when I was in college. I had never backpacked or went snow skiing or canoeing or cycling. I got hooked on that. Thirty years later, I still do it a lot.
What percentage of your job is administrative and how much of it is having fun?
I've got to be careful with that one. (chuckles) I've got the world's greatest job. Administrative is probably 40 percent. The hard thing is this is a new program. You really have to get out and hustle and talk to students. You can't just put it on our website or put it in our school newspaper. ... You have to go out and talk to folks and say we're offering this, this and this. Why don't you go try it. Once the word gets out that we're having this type of program, it's going to take off.
What does the administrative side of it entail?
Mainly the budget and coordinating the trips. Like we're going to Banning Mills (to zip line) or we're going horseback riding up at Roosevelt Stables; it's just coordinating that and the prices. It's also dealing with liability issues and pre-trip meetings, things like that.
Is this somewhat akin to running a tour company?
I never thought about it, but that's exactly what it is. Part of it is being a travel agent, yes. (chuckles)
Is a key to its success that there is good diversity within program participants -- males and females, upperclassmen and underclassmen, and among racial demographics?
We just did a trip to Providence Canyon, or the Little Grand Canyon. We had nine people go. We had a kid from South Korea, an exchange student who has been in the United States for two weeks. We had three African-American women. We had a Native American, an Indian, and we had two Hispanics. The others were white or Caucasian. It's neat to see the diversity that you have with our activities. That's all part of it.
It was kind of neat to see the kid from South Korea. He has broken English, and when we first sat down in the van, no one was talking. Then two hours later, everybody was best buddies. It's just the bonding and coming together as a group and they're asking a thousand questions about South Korea and he's asking a bunch of questions about America. It's just neat to see.
Does every university have someone with your job?
They do. There are different names -- outdoor adventures, outdoor recreation. Every school from our size up has one. Like the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, they have huge outdoor recreation programs for their students. Auburn, they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on it.
What qualities does someone need to do your job effectively?
Obviously, you have to have a love for the outdoors. You have to enjoy being around people. You have to have the outdoor skills to do it. The administrative part of it ... you have to know how to handle different situations, and know how to network in the university, and also network outside the university. Like we're going to try to partner with Valdosta State University to do an Okefenokee (National Wildlife Refuge and swamp) trip.
Is there any activity in particular you're looking forward to this semester?
I'm looking forward to skydiving. I really am. I've done all of this other stuff quite a bit. But I've never been on a plane where I have to step out and it's 14,000 feet to the ground. We'll have 10 people go on that trip.
Is there anything else you would like to see on the outdoor adventures schedule?
I would love to do some sea kayaking over at the Cumberland Islands, and do some more Okefenokee trips.
It's amazing just within 40 miles of here what we have outdoor-wise. We have the Chattahoochee River, which is two miles from where I'm sitting right now, and then we have Pine Mountain, and we have Providence Canyon. We do some bike rides on the riverwalk. The Flint River is 40 miles away.
It's just neat. People don't realize it. That's all part of outdoor adventures, to educate the people of the outdoor opportunities that we have right out our back door.
Name: Rick Cravens
Hometown: An Army brat, but has lived in Columbus since he was 14
Current residence: Columbus
Family: Two sons, Nicholas, 18, and Zachary, 17
Education: 1976 graduate of Hardaway High School; earned a bachelor's degree in recreation administration from Columbus State University in 1982; and earned a master's degree in leisure administration from Florida State University in 1984
Previous job: Director of Campus Recreation
Leisure time: Enjoys backpacking and riding his road and mountain bicycles, fishing, playing golf and a little basketball and volleyball; just likes being outside.