NGU News

Leadership Community Development

Posted on: February 2, 2021
By LaVerne Howell,

Students rock climbing.

These three words convey the cornerstone of North Greenville University’s Outdoor Leadership (ODEL) degree.

Walking into Neves 101 feels like strolling into a cheerful family reunion. Students assemble around an oval table sharing adventure stories and simply savoring fellowship with each other.

When a new face stumbles into the department, students eagerly introduce themselves with warm smiles and excited energy that draws you in like a magnet. It does not take long before you learn everyone’s names.

This is exactly the type of environment that the ODEL Department Chair Nathan Ruffrage strives to create for students involved with the ODEL program. Ruffrage has been serving students at NGU for 11 years.

Ruffrage explained the primary ingredient that fuses students together stems from time spent in his favorite classroom: the outdoors.

Smaller class sizes also contribute to the strength of this hidden community on campus.

Ruffrage promotes the idea of transformational leadership by pouring into students’ lives and helping them become more focused disciples of Jesus.

At its core, the ODEL program seeks to train students on how to shape a community of individuals. Ruffrage summarized the goal of the ODEL program, “To teach students how to use the outdoors to inspire and hone our skills as leaders.”

The ODEL department offers students the opportunity to develop their skills with several outdoor experiential components.

Wilderness Journey, a class offered to ODEL freshman, takes students on a two-week backpacking trip filled with surprising obstacles along the way.

Caroline Capell (expected ‘19) from Easley, recalled how her hiking trip for this class was the first time she had ever submersed herself into the outdoors. Capell shared how this particular trip showed her the beauty of learning how to work through a challenge.

“The bonding that occurred between me and my fellow students was so unique,” said Capell.

The ODEL program further equips students with an entire semester of immersive field-based teaching.

Capell shared one of her most treasured memories from that semester during a sea kayaking expedition in Florida. Kayaking as early as 5 a.m., the group would travel upwards of 30 miles a day.

Capell recalled how before the sun rose, everyone would silently paddle through the cold fog with chapped hands and weak spirits. Though silent, the group bonded together and understood each other’s trials while pushing through the demanding task.

But as the group pushed on the sun rose and shined through the mist, warming their hands and raising the groups’ spirits. Capell said that after the sun came up, everyone started talking and laughing with each other, rejuvenated and eager to continue the journey.

“You can find really special moments on almost any trip that you go on,” said Capell.

Another of Capell’s favorite expeditions with her classmates took place in Sand Rock, AL. During this trip, Capell learned climbing systems and theories, anchor building, and the basics of single pitch climbing by getting hands-on experience.

In the classroom, Ruffrage emphasizes group work, coaxing students out of their social bubbles. Ruffrage hopes to prepare students for situations where they might have to lead individuals with whom they don’t see eye to eye.

Organization and Administration of Outdoor Programs prepares students with the skills needed to maintain an outdoor business. Throughout the class, students learn the basics of business, specifically relating to the nature industry, and apply them to their designs for an outdoor experiential program.

NGU alumnus, Alex Smith (‘12), outlined and designed an outdoor program in this class and upon graduation, he brought his ideas to life.

Alex Smith.The ODEL program strengthened Smith’s public speaking and group processing skills, which parallel well with ministries in the Church and corporate team building.

Smith currently serves as the Director of Operations at the Greenville Outdoor Center, located in Marietta, scheduled to open spring 2019. Smith shared that he felt blessed with the opportunity to put into motion the vision for The Greenville Outdoor Center.

The Greenville Outdoor Center has several amenities to offer to the public, including zip lines, dog parks, disk parks, cabins, ecology tours, outdoor skills training, and overnight backpacking excursions.

Smith shared that he often finds himself utilizing the resources that he gained from his time at NGU with the ODEL program while working for the Greenville Outdoor Center.

Ruffrage expressed his excitement about the program’s future, “With support from the new administration, we are in a good spot to grow and expand.”

The ODEL program’s growth resonates with students going out and becoming professionals in the field. ODEL alumni have found jobs in fields including camp administration and wilderness therapy, while other alumni have furthered their education, pursuing a master’s degree in counseling.

“As our alumni continue to grow, so does our program,” said Ruffrage.

For information about our outdoor leadership degree program, visit

Article written by NGU’s Communications Intern Hannah Hurst (expected ’19).

© North Greenville University. All Rights Reserved. | Accessibility Statement

North Greenville University (NGU) admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.