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An experiment in our future

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BY JASON JENKINS
OWAA now has an official presence on the University of Missouri campus
On college campuses these days, there’s seemingly a club for every interest. At the University of Missouri, for example, there are more than 500 student groups. From academic organizations and professional societies to sports clubs and community service groups, if you name it, they probably have it.
That is, with one noted exception — outdoor communications. Yes, a student can join the bass fishing club, the forestry club or the magazine club, but why not fill the void and give students a group that combines their love of the outdoors and their desire to communicate about it? Why not give them OWAA?
Last fall, I posed this question to Bill Allen, a former science reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who now teaches science journalism at Ol’ Mizzou. He responded that not only was there a cadre of students who would jump at the opportunity to join such a group, but he also knew a student who could spearhead its creation.
At the winter OWAA Board of Directors meeting, I presented a plan for a pilot project to give OWAA a presence at the University of Missouri. Fast-forward a handful of months to a rainy Thursday in late April, inside a nondescript classroom on the Mizzou campus. Here, a small contingent of like-minded students came together for the inaugural meeting of the Mizzou Chapter of OWAA, the first official university student chapter to be sanctioned by our organization.
Why would OWAA get involved on a college campus? Well, it’s no secret that our ranks have steadily decreased in recent years. If our organization is to be relevant and vibrant in the future, we need to cultivate new members. As our mission states, we need to mentor the next generation of professional outdoor communicators. Without them, there will be no OWAA.
We need young communicators in our organization like John McLaughlin, a senior from Grain Valley, Mo., who is studying agricultural journalism with an emphasis in conservation and environmental sciences.
It was McLaughlin who stepped up and took on the task of getting the student chapter organized and officially recognized by the university. This latter step ensures that even after he graduates and moves on to his career, the chapter will be able to continue on with the next crop of students.
“I cannot thank OWAA enough for affording us this chance at future success,” said McLaughlin, who was elected president of the chapter for the 2011-2012 academic year.
“I have great expectations of increasing our student membership and furthering activity in our beloved outdoors. Our chapter looks forward to working with national OWAA members to further outdoor communication and strengthen our still budding knowledge of the natural world.”
For many years, OWAA has had a student membership category, but we’ve had relatively few takers. Why? I don’t think it’s from lack of interest. Instead, I think it’s because it’s difficult for anyone — especially college students — to connect to an organization on any meaningful level without some social interaction.
College life is predicated on the social experience: dorm life, classes, football games, frat parties. By having a presence on campus, OWAA will be able to interact with students in more meaningful ways. By interconnecting OWAA with the college experience, there’s a strong likelihood the relationship will continue into a student’s professional career and ensure that our ranks continue to be filled.
It will require more than just lending a name for this pilot project to succeed. OWAA members will need to be engaged with the student chapter, serving as mentors for these young communicators. Fortunately, many OWAA members in Missouri live close to the university, including three past presidents. OWAA members could serve as special guest speakers on local environmental and outdoor issues, participate in chapter activities such as field trips and outdoor recreation opportunities and provide other assistance to the chapter as needed.
If we’re successful, what we learn in Missouri during the next few months can be used to start OWAA chapters at colleges and universities around the country. The Mizzou Chapter of OWAA has elected its student leadership for the upcoming 2011-2012 academic year, and its activities will begin in earnest in the fall when classes resume. We hope to have a few members join us at the annual conference at Snowbird in July and also at the Goldenrod Workshop in Missoula later this summer.♦
An OWAA member since 2004, Jason Jenkins lives in Holts Summit, Mo., and is managing editor of Rural Missouri magazine. He can be reached at jasnic@mchsi.com.
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