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Outdoor Education

Tommy Holden ’95, ’04 PHD loves helping students explore ways to get outside and be active.

Tommy Holden ’95, ’04 PhD hasn’t kept count, but he figures he’s taught well over 1,000 NC State students different ways to experience and enjoy the outdoors. As a professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Studies for the last 20 years, Holden teaches courses in canoeing, sea kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking and run conditioning.

Many of his students are simply trying to get one of the physical education credits they need for graduation. But Holden, 49, sees each class as an opportunity for students to learn something new and, maybe, push themselves beyond what they thought they could do. “What’s really inspiring for me is to see the lightbulb go off – ‘I can do this,’” Holden says. “I get the greatest joy from seeing people succeed in places they didn’t think that was possible.”

Holden is one of 24 professors, instructors and researchers at NC State who were recently recognized with Alumni Association Faculty Awards. Holden was one of six professors named an Alumni Association Distinguished Undergraduate Professor, while others were recognized for their work with graduate students and in research and outreach.

It was fitting recognition for Holden, who is also an NC State alumnus. He grew up a Wolfpack fan, periodically making the drive with his parents from their home in Fayetteville, N.C., to cheer on the basketball team at Reynolds Coliseum. “The idea of it being a land-grant institution, consisting of hard-working individuals, resonated with us,” he says. “I really had my heart set on coming to NC State.”

Holden initially planned to study engineering, but realized after a couple of years that he lacked passion for it. “I was just kind of lost and was trying to find my way,” he says. He found it in what was then known as the physical education department, connecting with the faculty there in a way he had never experienced with the engineering faculty. A strong bond with the professor who taught a class on backpacking sent Holden on a new career path.

“There was something about that class, becoming part of a community and feeling I kind of belonged in a place,” he says. “My dad was a physical educator and my mom was a teacher. Helping people was always in my blood.”

Students have changed in the 20 years Holden has been at NC State. He says today’s students face a “tremendous amount of pressure” to perform, and that the increased reliance on technology has changed his relationship with students.

“I think about, when I first started, how simple things tended to be,” he says. “We certainly had email – it wasn’t in the stone age – but the technology has greatly added to our workload. Being accessible all the time, for me that’s a big challenge.”

But Holden has found ways to embrace the technology, noting that students can use apps on their mobile phones or wearable devices to track their progress in running or mountain biking. “It adds another element of accountability,” he says. “That’s an example of using your phone or other technology to help teaching.”

Students often ask Holden which class he most enjoys teaching, and he typically tells them it varies depending on “what I’m into at the moment.” But he says a class on backcountry instruction methodology – teaching other people to teach – always helps remind him what he loves about his job.

“It’s a great gig,” he says. “I’m lucky to have it.”

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