Mat Duerden: Wilderness Classroom
When undergraduate Mat Duerden couldn’t pin down a career path, an interesting opportunity came his way: hosting a wilderness camp. For Duerden, who is now a recreation management professor at the Marriott School, the rest is history.
The wilderness camp project was offered to him by recreation management professor Mark Widmer since Duerden was a white-water guide for his family’s company. The camp was about more than rafting, though.
“The goal was that the camp would serve as a research lab,” Duerden says. “We would provide kids with experiences, which undergrad students would facilitate. Faculty would also do research on the impact of these experiences.”
Duerden knew almost nothing about rec management but agreed to take on the task. With the assistance of his wife and others, Duerden began recruiting BYU students to help with the program, but getting things started proved to be a bigger feat than expected.
“We didn’t have a location, we didn’t have money, and Mark was leaving to New Zealand to do a semester-long study abroad,” Duerden says. “I had the feeling that it would all fall apart, but it never did.”
A friend connected Duerden with a development officer on campus. It turns out that he had a lifelong passion for youth programs and wanted to work alongside them. Duerden’s team secured funding through generous donors and an Orca grant, nailed down a location, and recruited a handful of undergrads as camp counselors.
Duerden spent a life-changing summer backpacking, white-water rafting, and mountain biking with groups of youth. It was experiences like these that led to Duerden’s turning point.
Later in the summer he took youth to a campground near the American River outside Placerville, California. The setting was just right. Widmer was lecturing, and Duerden sat listening as he took in the surreal scene around him. He remembers the exact moment things began clicking for him and his future.
“We were in this beautiful setting, interacting with great students, learning about really cool social-psychological theory, and I thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do!’”
The experience was so powerful that a week after returning from camp Duerden took the GRE to prepare for the youth and family recreation master’s program at BYU. He completed a thesis on the impact wilderness camps have on identity development, something he’d experienced firsthand. After graduating, he went on to get his PhD in recreation park and tourism sciences at Texas A&M, where he worked before joining the BYU faculty.
Duerden’s research focuses on the effects of direct and indirect learning and how they impact employees and organizations. Whether he was watching families bond on a white-water trip, seeing teens learn in the mountains, or witnessing his own transformation in the wilderness, the power of experiences has always been fascinating to Duerden.
“Just giving people information isn’t going to change their attitudes or how they behave. But if you give them information and opportunities for hands-on experiences, that’s what leads to change,” Duerden says. “The experiences we have in our non-work, non-school contexts have a profound effect on who we are as people.”