Heidi Riley: Outdoor Education As More Than Just Exercise

Heidi Riley: Outdoor Education As More Than Just Exercise

Colgate University students who venture into Base Camp, Outdoor Education’s (OE) hub, in search of outdoor equipment to rent or a physical education credit to earn are sure to be graced by the kind presence of Heidi Riley. Currently in her first full year as director of OE, Riley has worked at Colgate in the Outdoor Education program for four years. 

The mission of OE is to provide students with an outlet for safe, inclusive physical activity and outdoor experiences, allowing students to develop skills like leadership and collaboration in the process. Practically, Riley notes that OE offers the most physical education courses at Colgate, and is also responsible for carrying out the popular Wilderness Adventure pre-orientation programs in which about 25 percent of incoming classes have participated in the last several years. In a wider sense, though, Riley believes that OE plays a deeply important role at Colgate.

“The benefit [of OE] is that it provides another dimension of wellness. [Colgate students] are very driven, working towards goals, studying a lot, engaged, and it’s hard to make room for other facets of your life,” Riley said. “Sometimes it’s just engaging with the natural environment and giving your brain that space. That’s what we provide […] It’s really good for rounding people’s experiences out.”

Riley understands the value of exercising both the body and the mind. With an experiential background in outdoor guiding and wilderness medicine education, she holds an undergraduate degree in natural resource management and a master’s degree in theology. In this respect, her journey to Colgate was less than straightforward. Riley remarked that she essentially stumbled onto this passion relatively late in life.   

“I had never really been into the outdoor things at all, and then I got into college and I found a summer backpacking program that I just kind of lucked into,” Riley said. “And I was pretty good at it; it was fun.” 

Her academic background in theology ended up being very beneficial to the work she does, which involves anything from administrative tasks and collaborating with other departments on campus to debriefing and training student instructors. 

“My master’s [degree] is actually probably more relevant, just because we’re a people program, all of our activities are person-oriented,” Riley said. 

In fact, this is one of her favorite parts about working at Colgate: the students. 

“I like working for Colgate because I like working with students who are excited about growth and new experiences, and then creating experiences for other people. And that’s what I get with the students I work with,” Riley said. “That’s awesome, that the students are here because they want to be. They’re not here because they have to be, and that’s a nice thing for me, to get to work with people who want to be in the program.”

In the past, Riley has navigated some frustrations as a woman in the traditionally male-dominated outdoor space. 

“When I first got involved, I had to shape my leadership persona in ways that were initially uncomfortable for me,” Riley recalled. “I had to become more of a driver and really push myself out there and take up space because people weren’t going to let me lead in a way that was more natural to me. I think what happens a lot is they don’t see me as the person naturally in charge. They’ll look to my male coach director, whether or not he’s a student or my full-time staff.” 

On the other hand, Riley is pleased with relative improvements in expanding spaces for these traditionally underrepresented populations in her field.  

“[There are] still some organizations that have ‘old boys’ club’ mentalities, and some sports that are a little more that way, but really, the tides have changed a lot. There’s a lot of flexibility for women and for queer people to engage in activities with each other how they want to,” Riley noted. 

As the semester continues, Riley is most looking forward to enjoying the ice-climbing season. She is continually happy to be working at Colgate and living in Hamilton, with its close-knit community and its proximity to so many of her greatest passions. 

“This is the secret that people don’t really know, that if you can get psyched on one outdoor activity, central New York is rad. It’s so good. If you’re a trail runner if you can become a road biker, a cyclist, a mountain biker, a cross-country skier, snowshoer or hiker. Or, if you get into kayaking, or flat-water paddling or whitewater paddling: central New York has all of that stuff, within an hour and a half drive. It’s not epic-looking here, but it’s got really good stuff,” Riley said. “And I love that. I love this community.”