Often times, the best way to learn is by taking a hands-on approach. That’s definitely the philosophy of Ashley Brown, an adjunct instructor in the Department of Health and Human Performance.

Brown teaches coastal kayaking courses, and she’s among the best qualified individuals in the world to do that. She holds the top certification in the U.S. for kayak instructors, and late last year, she received the American Canoeing Association’s Excellence in Instruction Award. That’s an honor given to just one individual in North America each year.

For much of the past decade, Brown has been a pivotal figure in her department. Department chair Wes Dudgeon offers praise, saying that she has almost singlehandedly built the kayaking program at the College. In 2013, there weren’t any students taking such courses, but since then over 60 students each year enroll in Brown’s classes.

Ashley Brown conducting a kayak drill with the Coast Guard

Ashley Brown conducting a kayak rescue drill with the U.S. Coast Guard in Charleston Harbor.

“It has been wonderful working with Ashley,” Dudgeon says. “Along with [Physical Education Activity Class Program] director Tom Carroll, she has grown our watersports offerings significantly. The College also offers surfing, standup paddleboarding and sailing courses for credit. Teaching lifetime activities meets the mission of our department, and to afford students the opportunity to do this on the waters around Charleston is simply icing on the cake! We are fortunate to have someone as accomplished as Ashley on staff, and I look forward to working with her in the future as we continue growing our watersports courses.”

Dudgeon says that students who take Brown’s courses come from a diverse array of academic disciplines, including education, economics, biochemistry and physics. According to both Dudgeon and Carroll, Brown isn’t just developing paddlers, but is sending future professionals out into the world who have developed an appreciation for this pastime as well as the natural environment. Both say these students become stewards and advocates for sustainable, eco-sensitive paddling programs.

And Brown isn’t just an important influence with her students. She’s also a key figure in this sport. As one of only nine Level 5 AOWCK (Advanced Open Water Coastal Kayaking) instructors in the world who are female, she shares her knowledge at regional and national professional paddling summits and symposiums.

Brown says she’s keen to ensure that her students don’t just learn how to paddle properly, but also develop proficiency in navigation and an awareness of currents, tides and weather as well as how to read wind on the water.

“My favorite thing about teaching classes at the College,” she says, “is that over the course of a few months of being on the water, the students become leaders, teammates and independent paddlers. They start out as strangers and become a ‘pod’ – a group of aquatic mammals that look out for each other!”

An example of Brown’s innovative, hands-on approach to teaching was on display in November 2019 when she arranged for students in her coastal kayaking class to participate in a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescue exercise. In the process, her paddlers learned how to make emergency calls, care for victims, vector a rescue helicopter and deploy flares. She had her students take turns posing as victims who were then rescued by Coast Guard members who descended out of the chopper.

“That’s simply emblematic of her passion as an instructor,” Carroll explains. “She cares deeply about teaching kayaking and challenging people to test their limits while they learn and have a ton of fun doing that. Her total commitment, incredible skill, contagious passion and positive disposition make her among the best at what she does.”

Photos by Heather Moran