Michelle Pagano: Outdoor Nation Campus Ambassador

The August heat is intense in Texas. But that's no excuse for Outdoor Nation Campus Ambassador Michelle Pagano, who finds creative ways to get her classmates excited about outdoor adventures.

By Sarah Tuff Dunn July 1, 2016

Research shows that attrition from outdoor pursuits is greatest during the post-secondary-school years. In an effort to combat that attrition and ensure young adults maintain or develop a lifelong love of the outdoors, Outdoor Foundation and the National Park Service teamed up to create the Outdoor Nation Campus Ambassador program. The NPS sponsored 25 college students across the country who are charged with increasing outdoor engagement at their respective schools through programming and recreation opportunities. In this series, we’re sharing a few of their stories.  


When school starts up at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton every August, everybody’s fired up. Maybe a little too fired up. 

“Oh my gosh, the heat!” says Michelle Pagano, who grew up exploring the back trails of upstate New York by hiking, biking and camping with her family. “It’s brutalnobody wants to be outside.” 

Texas temperatures, however, haven’t been the only battle that Pagano has faced in rallying for recreation as TWU’s Outdoor Nation Campus Ambassador. “It’s not a huge outdoor community,” she admits. “A lot of students have never really spent a lot of time outdoors.” The surrounding town of Denton (pop. 113,000), says Pagano, has plenty of active people who hit the gym to workout, but on the Texas Woman’s University campus? Eh, not so much. 

Instead of letting that get her down, Pagano decided to go upway up, on the 30-foot indoor climbing wall that serves as one of the centerpieces of the TWU Fitness & Recreation Center. TWU also has an indoor pool, and an 18-hole golf course along with a full workout area, eight tennis courts and volleyball and basketball courts. The climbing wall, however, has a twofold benefit: It offers a cool respite from the hot Texas heat during the warmer months and also serves as a stepping stone to the Outdoor Adventure Program, for which Pagano is a supervisor. As such, she manages the staff, plans trips, rents equipment, teaches rock climbing and shares the spirit of the mission through social media. 

Rock climbing is how Pagano discovered her passion for bigger expeditions beyond the biking and hiking trips she experienced as a child. “Being an ambassador goes handinhand with what I already do,” says Pagano, who now spends a little more time indoors on paperwork, filling out project reports that help document adventures to demonstrate the student impact.  

Outdoor Foundation and the National Park Service selected Pagano to be one of 25 campus ambassadors across the country tasked with engaging new outdoor audiences at the college level, including minorities and underserved communities. Pagano was challenged to develop and implement a year-round (academic) strategy that engages her campus and community in outdoor recreation, focused on National Park visits as well as close-to-home opportunities on campus and in the community. To help her achieve the mission, the NPS and Outdoor Foundation provided Pagano with a $6,000 stipend to cover costs for the outdoor outings themselves as well as for marketing and outreach. “There are a lot of beginners, so I’m tasked with coming up with creative new ways to get people outside, says Pagano, who also works with the Fitness and Recreation Marketing Committee. 

Group fitness classes have been a hit, she says, and both TWU and local businesses have been backing Pagano’s push for more adventure. “The university gives me a ton of a support,” she says. “We’re a close, tight-knit group, and everyone knows each other, so it’s easy to get in contact, and the chancellor has been really great and super supportive.” 

Pagano has led 20 outings through the school’s Outdoor Adventure Program, and during the Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge, TWU logged more than 7,354 hours of outdoor activity.  

“Considering we had around 1,000 members logging outdoor activities,” Pagano says, “I would guess that at least 75 percent of those people were new outdoorists. Most students are novices.” 

Now in her third year at TWU, Pagano is pursuing a bachelor’s degree of science in kinesiology with an emphasis in exercise science and is working toward TWU’s Outdoor Adventure Leadership Certificate. The program partners with the kinesiology department to arm students with the skills to become lifelong outdoor leaders 

From Wilderness First Responder protocol to experiential learning, this certificate provides formal validation of the passion that fuels Pagano, who sometimes has to resort to a few more informal ways of engaging students. “Water balloon games are a great way to beat the heat,” she says. “And slipping into a kayak to paddle one of the nearby state parks on a super hot day is just one of the best feelings ever.”