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Winter 2014 Newsletter Extended: Susan Mackenzie

Live It, Protect It, Explore It!

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By: Ari Kamp (RPTA ’15), Staff Writer

Dr. Mac river surfing

One of RPTA’s newest faculty additions is Dr. Susan Mackenzie, aka Dr. Mac. She is a self-described Kiwi (having spent almost 10 years in New Zealand), soccer player, tour guide, traveler, Spanish speaker, river surfer, researcher, sport psychology enthusiast, and proud new member of the RPTA family. Dr. Mackenzie has a wide range of talents and experiences that she is excited to bring to her classes and the department as a whole.

Dr. Mackenzie has been very busy living an adventurous life, so busy that it is a difficult task to compile her life accomplishments and experiences into a single introduction. Dr. Mac was born and raised in Minnesota before moving out west to attend Pomona College where she acquired her B.A. in psychology. As a psychology student, she was originally studying mental illnesses, but became more interested in positive psychology, or well-being and optimal functioning, which she explains as the study of what makes individuals and communities flourish. She felt compelled to find a way to combine her interest in psychology and passion for recreation and adventure. Ultimately, she aimed to facilitate optimal experiences in tourism and recreation settings that would be fun and healthy for participants.

Dr. Mac playing soccerDr. Mackenzie explains that psychology and recreation are two disciplines that are ideally suited for one another, as they are both key parts of what make people’s lives worth living. She has been closely examining these ideas through the concepts of Flow Theory and Self-Determination Theory, which focus on flourishing in specific enhanced settings and examines how social and cultural factors can influence one’s well-being and quality of life. Appropriately, her life pursuits and path in taking the road less traveled have lead her in a direction that has provided her with her own unique individual perspective on our field.

Dr. Mac’s unconventional life path is perhaps what has provided her with such a profound understanding of the scope of recreation. After graduating from Pomona College she was presented with a scholarship opportunity to do her master’s researching soccer and it’s impact on gender roles in the UK. After playing in a soccer tournament in Australia the next summer she spent two weeks traveling in New Zealand on what she then thought was her way back home to the US. Ultimately, she decided to stay “down under” working on organic farms through the WWOOFing program and becoming more familiar with the area. While doing so she discovered river surfing and claims from there, “the rest is herstory (or history...)!” With that, New Zealand became her new home.

Most Californians are familiar with the concept of ocean surfing, but river surfing is something slightly more foreign to most of us. In this case, the wave is stationary on the river, caused by a high volume of water constricted by flowing over a rock and creating a wave behind. In New Zealand, trips are run on the Kawarau River near Queenstown. Dr. Mac took a course  in river surfing to become an instructor. After taking the course, her instructor first told her that she was not quite good enough to be a guide, but she beat the odds and did it anyway.
Exceeding expectations and overcoming limitations is something that Dr. Mackenzie’s travels and experiences have encouraged her to do. When she realized that there were no women’s soccer leagues in Queenstown, she simply played with the boys. She trained hard with the men’s league and her hard work landed her a spot on the local team’s roster. Perhaps the greatest benefit of overcoming this challenge was the introduction to a male teammate that would one day become her husband. Once teammates on the field, they now both work and live in the San Luis Obispo community.

After training to become a river surfing guide, Dr. Mac traveled back and forth between hemispheres enjoying back-to-back summers. After her first season in New Zealand she guided a group in Cuba as a translator and worked in the UK at an English and sport school where she lived on site with students. Another summer she worked for a start-up river surfing company on a river in Aspen, Colorado. Between seasons Dr. Mac even took the time to stop in such locations as Thailand, Turkey, and several of the European countries.

Between her time as a river guide, or as what she refers to as being a “riverbum,” traveling, and playing competitive soccer, she had to plot out her future. Her riverbum side toyed with the idea of starting a river company, while her “nerdy” side showed an interest in going back to school. “I wanted a bit more challenge after guiding for five years and almost took over two river surfing companies just before that, but decided education was where I belonged,” she notes. She became a New Zealand citizen and decided to go back to get her PhD at the University of Otago in sport psychology and adventure recreation/tourism. While getting her degree, she continued to work on the river seasonally, guide Spanish tours, and started teaching a number of adventure tourism management courses to students.
Upon completion of her PhD, she decided that it was her last chance to go to South America before entering academia, so she spent six months traveling to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina - including a season working in Pucon, Chile for a river surfing company and living with the Chilean family that owned it.While she was in South America, she also became involved in risk management, consulting for an adventure tour company in the Galapagos. She developed a risk management manual for them and continues to do consulting for them on an as-needed basis.

Dr. MackenzieNow, Dr. Mac teaches RPTA 214, Introduction to Hospitality and Travel, as well as RPTA 221, Professionalism and Customer Service. Additionally, she is working alongside Dr. Keri Schwab and the RPTA faculty on a US Forest Service grant called Awakening and Strengthening the Connection of Urban Youth to the Land aimed at reconnecting underserved urban LA youth with natural areas in the LA basin through social media strategies. Dr. Susan Mackenzie says that her current challenge and priority is developing RPTA 221, which she will be offering in the winter quarter, a new course which she is both excited and nervous to teach. Ultimately, Dr. Mac explains that she hopes to develop a program where she can take students to her old stomping grounds, including places like New Zealand and the Galapagos Islands, so she can teach on areas of study like adventure or nature-based tourism from her own personal experiences.

When asked what she feels have been her greatest accomplishments, on a personal level she is appreciative that she has taken advantage of specific opportunities that came her way and proud that she was not afraid of trying and experiencing new things. She says that although it may have taken her a little longer than most to get where she is today she has no regrets and would not change a thing. On a more professional level, she feels accomplished to have challenged herself in non-traditional female fields, in places where women are not seen as equals. For example, she is proud that the soccer and river surfing communities she has been involved with are evolving and that she was able to play a small part by taking on encouraging leadership roles. Most of all, she says that she is proud of the students she has had the opportunity to work with and their accomplishments that can be seen and felt in many different parts of the world. 

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