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Assistant Professor Nick Pitas (first row on left) poses with students at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute in Tennessee.
Assistant Professor Nick Pitas (first row on left) poses with RST 199 students at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute in Tennessee. After a long hiatus, Illinois is back in the fold for the Outdoor Recreation Consortium.

Outdoor Recreation Consortium: An RST trip to the Smokies—for class credit


Kiara Frausto thinks she might’ve been “kind of spoiled” in her first visit to a national park. 

That’s because the University of Illinois junior was treated to a week full of hands-dirty field research at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute—where students banded birds, caught salamanders and listened to Appalachian folk stories—and it all counted for course credit. 

“It’s probably going to be hard to beat this one,” Frausto said. “Now I want to see all the other national parks.” 

Buses full of students from seven universities rolled into the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Tennessee just after spring break, ready for a week of experiential learning in the country’s most visited national park. 

For the first time in more than a decade, University of Illinois students got to join the group, known as the Outdoor Recreation Consortium. The roster of involved universities has shifted over the years; Illinois dropped out years ago without a faculty member to run the trip. 

But now, with second-year Recreation, Sport and Tourism Assistant Professor Nick Pitas at the helm, Illinois has returned to the fold. 

This year, nine students took the eight-week RST 199 course: Outdoor Recreation Consortium, which culminated in a six-day stayaway visit to the Smokies. 

Students and faculty from six other schools took part this year, including Penn State University, North Carolina State, East Carolina, University of Missouri, Texas A&M and Western Illinois.

Pitas is well-traveled alumnus of the course, which has been around in some form for 46 years. He enrolled and visited the Smokies while he was a student at Penn State, then rejoined the trip as a teaching assistant—twice—before eventually teaching it as a faculty member. 

“This was my fifth time going,” Pitas said. “But first time as a faculty here at Illinois.” 

What kept him returning to the trip were the rich, hands-on experiences that embodied all the concepts the course had prepared them for. Once in the Smokies, students hear from real National Park Service rangers and administrators, natural resource scientists and community partners, all while assisting them with field research data collection. 

At Illinois, RST 199’s eight week were spent introducing students to the operations of a national park, through its history and cultural context, the wide biodiversity in the region, and the management of the park’s record visitor numbers. Students also broke off into “committees” to help organize the trip, from transportation logistics all the way to morale-boosting exercises. 

“From a professional standpoint, I think it opens their eyes, hopefully, to the breadth of opportunities that are available in the outdoor recreation, natural resource, and tourism space,” Pitas said. “But the bulk of the learning is when we’re there. It’s like going to summer camp except with an extra learning component baked into it.” 

Michela Ossola, a senior in natural resources and environmental sciences at ACES, helped map the ideal driving route to the Tremont Institute in Blount County, Tennessee. Once there, daily trips to the forest and engaging learning sessions kept the time flying by.

“It’s a week detox of being off your phone, and every evening we’d have people come by, folk storytellers, folk music, a bear caller. A lot of those things you don’t get for free these days,” Ossola said. “It’s definitely a highlight in the four years I’ve gone to U of I.” 

Many of the students this year, like Ossola and Frausto, came from the College of ACES. Undergrad students in the college are required to complete a field experience before they graduate. 

But Pitas would like to grow the number of Applied Health Sciences students who come through the class, like Genna Peters, a junior in RST who’s interested in pursuing an outdoor recreation career post-graduation. 

Peters loved getting to know the professionals from the Appalachia area, like a park ranger who was enrolled in the Western Cherokee tribe and mingling with students from all the other universities. 

“The biggest experience for me being around all these other people my age who shared in the same interest and wanted to go into the same field as me,” she said. “It was really cool to know this park has this giant history of all these different people who work there, but they also really truly treasure the culture and history of the park itself.” 

As much as the field knowledge broadens horizons for the students who go, Pitas knows the relationships they build are just as important. 

“It's not always the case that an adult has a chance to have a camp experience and just go and be with people they know and people they don't know, and have that of connection and experience together,” Pitas said. 

“I feel very lucky to have the chance to do it, would be my overarching feeling this semester. This is awesome. Can't believe I get to do this for work.” 

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