Leah Hall Dorothy, NIRSA's new president, saw the future of campus recreation in 2009 as a Ph.D. candidate in educational leadership at the University of Nebraska. Her dissertation was titled, "Experiences that Prepared Second-Year University Recreational Sports Management Professionals for their Careers." A decade later, as director of recreational sports at Oregon State University, she's living proof of her own research.
"The sense of community and the knowledge and skills students gain while working in campus recreation take them into this field," says Dorothy, who for her paper profiled seven individuals on career paths other than college recreation before their campus rec jobs prompted a change in direction. "The students that work for us are not just working at a desk and doing one repetitive activity. The expectation is that they will engage in customer service, which also involves problem solving, communication and professionalism. We work with them to teach those skills so they can be ready for what's next."
Bluefishjobs.com was created to match campus recreation professionals with qualified job candidates. But the NIRSA-powered platform has greatly expanded since it first appeared in 2001.
"Bluefishjobs.com isn't just for campus recreation anymore," says Leah Hall Dorothy, director of recreational sports at Oregon State University who ascended to NIRSA's presidency in May.
Today, the site hosts job opportunities in sports, recreation and facility management, outdoor adventure, wellness programming, aquatics, fitness instruction, event services, risk management, marketing and more.
While use of the website is free for job seekers, employers can post jobs for 60 days for a fee of $175 for NIRSA members and $300 for nonmembers. Additionally, 60-day access to an online resume data bank costs $25 for members and $50 for nonmembers.
"The year 2000 was a dotcom boom time and everyone was thinking of creative new names for their web presence," says Cory Granholm, NIRSA's creative director, recalling the origins of the bluefishjobs.com name. "This was the era of Monster.com, Amazon.com and MySpace.com — website names that stood out from the crowd. NIRSA tossed its hat in the ring by brainstorming a long list of website names that had two criteria. First, the name must refer to NIRSA — a nod to our primary color, NIRSA blue. Second, the name must contain a reference to an animal. Why an animal? Exactly. It's zany and subversive."
Bluefish.com was taken, but bluefishjobs.com was not. The rest is NIRSA history.
Indeed, campus recreation jobs such as fitness instructor, personal trainer, outdoor recreation trip leader, climbing wall instructor, game official, and intramurals and sports program assistant and supervisor give students many of the skills employers are looking for these days — regardless of their career paths. Many of Dorothy's employees are business, engineering and agricultural science majors.
To help students recognize that the skills they gain by working in campus recreation can help them land a job in their chosen field after graduation — and potentially give them a significant competitive edge over other job candidates — Oregon State last fall introduced the On-Ramp recreational sports student employee career-readiness program. The free program uses a campus-based software platform that allows student campus recreation employees to participate in multiple levels of career-readiness preparation. Each level is recognized by an Oregon State-endorsed digital badge that is compatible with LinkedIn and other networking sites.
Research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows significant gaps between the skills employers seek in recent graduates and the skills graduates feel they are bringing to their chosen profession. On-Ramp and similar programs at other colleges and universities help bridge that gap.
NIRSA also has co-published a white paper about the impact student employment in campus recreation has on the development of skills that employers seek most.
"Students are starting to understand that the skills they learn here are really valuable for employment beyond the university," says Dorothy, who brings 35 years of campus recreation experience to her dual roles at NIRSA and Oregon State, a school that itself has more than a century of recreational programming history. "A lot of our students are not pursuing recreation as a degree, so what they learn here really doesn't do any good unless they can actually articulate what they are doing and explain their transferrable skills to an employer. It shouldn't just be, 'Oh, I taught a fitness class,' or 'I organized this group.'"
She notes that former campus recreation students at Oregon State have gone on to high-level jobs at Google and Dutch Bros. Coffee. Dorothy also points to fellow University of Nebraska alum Michael Forsberg, whose on-campus job as an outdoor recreation trip leader helped prepare him for a career as a renowned wildlife photographer with credits that include National Geographic and Audubon magazines.
"People are taking the skills they learn in campus recreation and finding their passions," Dorothy says.
Number of visits to bluefishjobs.com per year
Number of job posts per year on the website
Number of views, on average, each posting receives
Number of searchable resumes in the site's resume data bank
All the more reason why campus recreation professionals are seeking greater recognition for the role they play in impacting the overall success of all students.
"We're not just here to run a league, and other departments don't look at us only as people who roll balls out on the court anymore," Dorothy says. "We're involved in almost every activity that is taking place throughout student affairs. We're connected with housing, and we work with academic departments to help them engage first-year students. We need to look at that evolution and realize we're here to inspire, educate, engage and equip students to be active and healthy and well in a global society. We are a part of the larger higher-education world."
This shift has happened subtly over the years, she notes, but the focus has really sharpened in the past five years as campuses look to enhance the advancement of student wellbeing. Dorothy suggests that campus recreation professionals share with administration ways in which their staffs are preparing students for life beyond campus. In some cases, high-ranking leaders might not even be aware of all the good work recreation professionals are doing.
"The co-curricular experience is closely linked to academic success," Dorothy explains. "To achieve success in the classroom, students have to belong and feel a sense of community. I think what's starting to happen is a shift in what professional development looks like for campus recreation professionals. It's about the realization that the work we do is impacting different areas of campus, and our work is starting to be elevated more."
Such work includes preparing students for the professional world in other ways, too. On a wall in the administration area of Oregon State's Dixon Recreation Center, painted in large letters, is the message "Fail harder" — a reminder to all student employees that they don't have to be perfect, that they are still training for whatever profession they choose, and that some degree of failure is acceptable within the confines of the university's Recreational Sports Department. After all, that's what creating a safe working environment is all about.
"We teach by failing forward and learning," Dorothy says. "Students need to have that experience of realizing that failure is okay, because sometimes things don't go quite right. It can't just be business as usual if you're going to learn anything."
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Jobs in campus rec prepare students for diverse careers." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.