From exploring canyons to climbing mountains – adventure awaits UNI students

From exploring canyons to climbing mountains – adventure awaits UNI students

Anna Flanders /

11 UNI students holding up UNI flag on Adventure Trip

Did you know the University of Northern Iowa gives students opportunities to go on exciting adventures like cross-country skiing in Governor Dodge State Park and climbing the Needles of Rushmore? During the spring 2023 semester, the Department of Health, Recreation and Community Services (HRCS) hosted six Adventure Trips, allowing more than 40 students to explore the outdoors and gain wilderness skills.

“The purpose of the Adventure Trips program is to connect students with nature and provide healthy, college-defining experiences,” said Drew Abrams, a graduate assistant studying community health and recreation who works on the Adventure Trips program and coordinates some of the trips. “These trips help to build a strong sense of community and create opportunities for students to grow as individuals and as leaders.”

Abrams says he wasn’t always an adventurous person. During his undergraduate years at UNI studying English education, he got involved with the rock wall in the Wellness and Recreation Center (WRC). This led to him going on climbing trips and eventually becoming a trip coordinator. Throughout his time as an undergraduate and graduate student, Abrams has gone on trips to the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Canyon, Diablo Canyon and other places.

Through these experiences, Abrams grew in his boldness. In fact, he became so used to stepping outside of his comfort zone that he completed student teaching in Thailand.

“I would never have done that if I hadn't been involved with this program and felt comfortable doing that,” he said.

After graduating from UNI, Abrams went into teaching like he’d always planned. While he enjoyed teaching, he missed the community of outdoor recreation and the activities he had been involved with as an undergraduate. This prompted him to return to UNI to pursue a master’s degree in community health and recreation (now called recreation, tourism and nonprofit leadership).

“I wouldn’t be back here for my master’s if it wasn’t for this program,” he said.

Every semester, there is a coordinator training trip to keep students up-to-date on industry standards. Coordinators learn valuable skills including wilderness first aid, pre-trip planning, backpacking, rock climbing and post-trip debriefing. 

Although the HRCS department hosts these trips, students from a wide variety of majors including speech-language pathology and elementary education lead the trips. 

“For those going into the recreation field, this training directly builds their professional profile and provides excellent proof of competency for their future employers,” said Abrams. “For those in other fields, this training and experience as coordinators is a great way to show their leadership skills. For all, it shows their dedication to a program that they care about and their desire to provide others with life-changing experiences.”

Although Abrams will be leaving the program when he graduates this spring — he’s accepted a position as the climbing wall coordinator at Utah Tech University — he’s leaving it in capable hands. Courtney Johnson, who graduated from UNI in 2022 with a degree in earth science, will be returning in the fall to pursue her master’s in community health and recreation and continue as a graduate assistant for HRCS.

Another coordinator who will continue to be with the program next semester is Mackenzie Ireland, a junior majoring in elementary education with a minor in TESOL teaching (teaching English to speakers of other languages).

Much like Abrams, Ireland was introduced to the Adventure Trips through the rock wall in the WRC and went on her first Adventure Trip for the climbing. Since then, she’s gone on more climbing trips, whitewater rafted in Wisconsin and coordinated a backpacking trip in Illinois, among other excursions. 

Ireland appreciates how the trips have broken up her typically packed college routine and given her some mental rest when she needs it.

Drew Abrams ice climbing

“One way it's really impacted me is just teaching me how much I'm capable of,” she said. “It's so important to try to expand your comfort zone and do something that's maybe a little bit intimidating. A lot of personal growth can come from it. The new experiences and challenges are so valuable, and the community is incredible.”

At first, when the idea of becoming a coordinator was posed to her, Ireland thought it sounded like a cool opportunity but wasn’t sure if she had the competencies to take on the responsibility. Her mindset changed when she began reflecting on just how much the trips have impacted her. She also saw the way the coordinators specifically have helped her, and she wanted to benefit others in the same way. 

“I can be that impact for other people and bring other people into the program who don't have experience – and then help them to have these impactful opportunities and experiences to go in the backcountry and do things that might be a new personal challenge and something they love,” she said.

“On every trip, you get to experience something new,” Ireland continued. “It's a different type of challenge. We definitely have a really good variety of trips that we're hoping to be able to run.”

Abrams couldn’t agree more.

“If you're looking for empowering and life-changing things to do, this is it.”

Students can find out more on the Adventure Trip webpage.

Eight UNI students on a hike on Adventure Trip