Date of Award

Spring 2013

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Ann Diller


Forty-nine formal research studies have been conducted on participants of college outdoor orientation programs. Although many variables have been examined for the incoming students, only one study has focused on the impact on the student leaders.

The goal of this study was to understand how student leaders in outdoor orientation programs understand the impact of their leadership experience, and what aspects of the leadership role fostered value or personal significance. The study also investigated whether there were any notable differences between leadership experiences in faith-based versus non-faith-based programs. Data was collected from 36 first-time student leaders from 4 programs using a post-trip response essay & an in-depth interview with each student.

Findings indicate that students place high value on the leadership experiences, and perceived benefits of the leadership role are shared across the four programs examined in this study. Prominent thematic findings are presented as a 4-stage model of the trip leaders experiences.

Student respondents believe the outdoor leadership experience shaped their identity in three major ways. First, the most commonly described change is increased confidence; this refers to the belief in one's personal capability to be successful in the face of adversity; one's belief in the value of his or her perspective, leading to an ability to exercise his or her voice appropriately; and one's belief in his or her proficiency for leadership. Second, students recognize a change in interpersonal growth, described by a better ability to work well with others and facilitate social situations. The third change was reported only by students at the two Christian colleges. Within the faith-based programs, students reported experiencing spiritual growth.

According to the themes generated in this study, outdoor orientation program student leaders report accelerated growth in at least four of Chickering and Reisser's (1993) seven vectors: developing competence, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, and developing mature interpersonal relationships.

The outdoor leadership experience was highly valued by the student leaders and perceived as a significant growth experience. Outdoor orientation programs may have a beneficial impact on the growth of leaders as well as participants.