Childersburg’s Hannah Garner hunts white-tailed deer like there’s no tomorrow and has fished since she could hold a pole. “I’m a very outdoorsy person and have been my whole life, ” she says.
Helena’s Tyler Harless recalls fishing when he was still in diapers. “I’ve always been in the woods or near the lake, ” he says. “I do a little bit of hunting, but mostly I fish.”
Garner and Harless now attend the University of Montevallo, largely because of a program that reaches out to prospective students who love to hunt and fish. Not only are they allowed to participate in outdoor activities, but they’ve received scholarships to do so.
It’s made possible by a unique initiative at Montevallo called the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program. As the name implies, the endeavor was started and is strongly backed by Montevallo President John Stewart III, himself an avid outdoorsman.
The President’s Outdoor Scholars Program aims to recruit students who hunt or fish or have contributed to conservation. It encourages, but does not require, participants to pursue a line of work in an outdoor environment — jobs such as conservation officers, biologists or hunting guides.
The program came about, Stewart says, as he and others pondered ways to effectively recruit students and increase enrollment. “It’s an axiom of marketing that you want to build pipelines to affinity groups in any enterprise or organization, ” Stewart says. “I thought, ‘Where do we live in the world?’ and ‘What is as important to Alabama high school kids as football?’
“And the answer I came up with was hunting and fishing, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that provide a really rich and interesting addition to our student population?’ And, in some ways, it was another way to add true diversity to our campus.”
Montevallo, which has 3, 100 students, is Alabama’s only public liberal arts university. As such, it has its share of students with no interest in hunting or fishing but who want a clean environment. Those students have more in common than they might think with those who hunt and fish.
“The fact is that hunters and fishermen and women care as much about the environment as anyone, ” Stewart says. “We thought that the important ethos of conservation that hunters and fishermen brought with them to learning would be a wonderful addition to the environmentally friendly kids we already had here.”
The President’s Outdoor Scholars Program had eight students its first year, 22 this year and expects to have between 40 and 50 this fall. Some $20, 500 in scholarships were awarded in the program’s first year and $43, 000 in its second.
A few of several sponsors are Buckmasters, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division and Moultrie Feeders, which sells feeders, outdoor camera systems and other hunting products.
According to a university brochure, the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program exposes students to conservation and game management, lectures and activities related to hunting and fishing techniques and strategies, game calling and retriever training, exploration of careers in outdoor sports and preparation of fish and wild game for the table.
Planned or completed field trips include fishing in the Bahamas, Texas and Louisiana, quail hunting in Alabama and duck hunting in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The director of the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program is William Crawford, a former college baseball player whom Stewart says “has all the innards of a great outdoorsmen.” Crawford is an expert trainer of retrievers but also knows how to sell a program. He has seen how athletes, including himself, are recruited, and he also did fundraising at Montevallo before stepping into his new role.
“It’s presumptuous to call it the president’s program, because William is the CEO now, ” Stewart says. “The most important thing is that the program has integrity and that we do everything in an ethical manner. If I had a son or daughter coming to school here and interested in the outdoors, I would be supremely confident that William would give them a terrific experience.”
Crawford says the program has a modest advertising budget — between $15, 000 and $20, 000 — but has placed ads on ESPN as part of its recruiting effort. So far, however, social media like Facebook and Instagram have been by far the best way to reach prospective students.
“I would say social media makes up about 90 or 95 percent of the importance of what we do from a marketing standpoint, ” Crawford says. “It’s cost effective. The first ad we bought through social media cost $50. We received three applications from it and probably 60, 000 views from it. As soon as we started it, applications came in. As soon as we stopped, the applications stopped.
“Instagram and Facebook are the two things we use, ” he says. “What we’re seeing is Instagram and Snapchat is what the high school kids use.”
Adds Stewart: “It’s where they live.”
Crawford says that most of the program’s field trips and activities are paid for with donations from companies and private donors. “As this program continues, that aspect of it will play a bigger role than it already has, because you have to have the funds available to make the machine run, ” he says.
“We’re looking at doubling our capacity as far as students go from 22 to 50 students next year. That’s a lot more resources we will have to have. We’re looking for partners, and our partners can come in any shape, size or form. We just want people to be involved so we can continue the growth of this program.”
Crawford and Stewart say they are working to establish credits for field trips students in the program take, and they hope to establish an academic component for the program, hopefully by establishing a related minor in 2018 and eventually a major of some kind.
“A minor would help bring more students in, ” Stewart says. “The idea is that it would be appealing to employers.”
ABOVE Hannah Garner loves to hunt; Tyler Harless loves to fish. The new program attracted both to Montevallo.
Crawford says that interest in wildlife and conservation courses has increased significantly in the short time that Montevallo has offered the new program. “Now what we’re seeing in high schools are different kinds of wildlife and conservation courses being taught in select high schools, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger, ” he says. “So now we have another group to talk with as well. Along with social media, we’re trying to recruit outside the box, so to speak.”
Because the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program is new and lacks a track record of graduates, Crawford and Stewart are still figuring out ways to create “a funnel” to the job market for graduates.
“Having an educational component added into the program will help solidify all that, ” Crawford says. “It’s going to take getting one or two students who graduate, getting them out there and being successful. The rest will be history.”
Harless, a freshman, remains undecided about his career path. As he works toward that decision, he will be a key member of the university’s bass fishing team. Garner, on the other hand, has chosen a career in special education but will not forget her outdoors world.
“I’m always going to hunt and fish when it comes around into the season, ” she says. “What I want to do with special needs children is bring this to them because there are a lot of outdoor special needs projects I would like to be involved in.”
Charlie Ingram and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.