Illusration of UNI graduates and students helping people in the community

Purpose over profits

Recreation, Tourism and Nonprofit Leadership alums make lasting changes to their communities

Upon arriving as Sioux City’s new parks and recreation director in 2014, one of the first projects University of Northern Iowa alum Matt Salvatore, ‘02, tackled was creating a new city park.
But not just any city park. The $6 million Cone Park is a winter recreational area complete with a 700-foot snow tubing hill and refrigerated ice skating rink, Salvatore said. Now in its fifth year of operation, the park draws families from a 120-mile radius.
Creating “something fun and unique for the community” like Cone Park is part of what drew Salvatore to UNI’s Recreation, Tourism and Nonprofit Leadership (RTNL)program. (The program was known until 2020 as the Leisure, Youth and Human Services major.)
 “I was very fortunate because UNI has one of the best parks and recreation curriculums around,” said Salvatore, who’d originally planned to become a teacher. “I figured as a teacher I would wind up spending my summers in some capacity with parks and recreation, so I just thought, ‘Why not make a career out of it and work 12 months out of the year doing something I absolutely love doing?”
“So I was very fortunate to have
that education available to me at UNI to fall back on. The classes that I took, the professors that I had” were absolutely invaluable, he said.
Alumni say the program is a hidden gem that has fueled their careers in a diverse array of fields.
“I love working in the nonprofit sector because I’m able to plan events that deepen connections to a global cause,” said Annie Simmons, ‘20, event and volunteer coordinator for Blessman International, a Christian nonprofit that works to help families in the Limpopo province of South Africa.
Other RTNL alums are working at nonprofits across the country like the Muscular Dystrophy Association to help improve people’s lives. “Because of my education, I get to serve children in foster care in my community,” said Emma Dill, ‘20, development director at Cedar Valley Angels, the Cedar Falls chapter of a national nonprofit.  
UNI professor Kathleen Scholl, department head for the Department of Health, Recreation and Community Services, which includes the RTNL program, has literally written the book on leadership in recreation, parks and leisure services — one that is now in its fourth edition.
She says what makes the division unique is its focus on “building the livability of communities” across a range of different disciplines.

“These community and nonprofit agencies are often now on the front lines of providing after-school care, food and nutrition assistance, as well as addressing impacts of homelessness and community emergencies. Our graduates are there leading the way.”



“In these changing times, the skills and knowledge we are offering our students are more important than ever. It is exciting and rewarding to see our graduates making a difference in their communities,” Scholl said.
The emphasis on community service is a big part of the program’s appeal, many alums say. Scholl said the RTNL degree prepares graduates for leadership, managerial and staff positions in a variety of community, health and human services, and nonprofit settings. A core set of classes culminate in students participating in a required internship.
“RTNL students are actively engaged in learning via group projects, community endeavors and their internship,” said professor Christopher Kowalski, ‘07. “We believe this helps prepare them to be successful in a variety of fields and at all levels.”

RTNL students are also being prepared for the expanded roles that recreation agencies and nonprofits now provide. In many places, these entities have expanded to fill gaps in America’s social service net, facing a variety of new and unique challenges along the way.

“In many parts of the country­ — both rural and urban — your local park district or library have transformed in recent years to become interconnected wellness hubs and multiservice centers,” Scholl said.

“Park and recreation agencies as well as many nonprofit organizations are finding themselves extending their services well beyond community-based recreation programming,” Scholl says.

“These community and nonprofit agencies are often now on the front lines of providing after-school care, food and nutrition assistance, as well as addressing impacts of homelessness and community emergencies such as flooding, extreme weather or wildland fire evacuations. Our graduates are there leading the way.”





The five focus areas

1. Community recreation correlates most strongly to leisure services and programming found in community facilities such as municipal recreation centers and local parks.

2. Tourism is an important economic driver by making significant contributions to job creation as well as improving the social and cultural livability of a community. This includes managing any potential impacts of tourism.

3. Nonprofit leadership connects to youth and human services, as many organizations integrate critical community services with philanthropic and governmental agencies.

4. Therapeutic recreation addresses the needs of individuals with illness or disabling conditions by using recreation and other activities to improve quality of life and well-being.

5. Outdoor recreation professionals strive to protect our natural and cultural resources while providing sustainable recreation access and outdoor education experiences.

Illustrations of Recreation, Tourism and Nonprofit Leadership alums



On the nonprofit leadership side, UNI alumni are working hard to ensure these agencies have the resources they need.
Kari McCann Boutell, ‘11, has had a passion for philanthropy since middle school. After graduating from UNI’s RTNL program, she earned a graduate degree in philanthropic studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and worked as a director at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.
She is now president of the Iowa Council of Foundations, a group of about 70 community, private, family and corporate foundations and grantmakers.

“An accomplishment I’m most proud of is the public policy agenda that we’ve adopted as an organization and the impact we’ve been able to make on the state and federal levels advocating for tax policy and charitable giving incentives,” she said.

UNI alum Emily Hanson, ‘13, spent six years as director of the Waterloo Schools Foundation, a nonprofit that serves more than 11,000 students and 1,600 staff in the Waterloo Community School District.

“I think one of the things I’ve been most proud of has been the foundation’s partnership with the district to increase equity, diversity and inclusion in our schools,” she said. “We’re a minority majority district. Over 40 languages are spoken in Waterloo schools and so being able to offer services and to fund things ... that are going to impact kids all across our district has been really exciting.”

“The great thing about being an RTNL student is your major is so broad it allows you to try out different skills,” she said. “I think sometimes students say, ‘This is what I want to do and I’m not going to try anything else.’ But in reality, that’s where you have some of your most impactful experiences.”

Hanson said as a student she spent a summer interning at a nursing home. It wasn’t something she ever planned to do, but still uses skills she learned that summer in her work, she said.

She is now executive director of the Black Hawk County Gaming Commission, overseeing the distribution of about $4 million in community grants each year.

Like other RTNL students, Salvatore originally wanted to become a different sort of public servant altogether — a classroom teacher.

“I went to UNI for education, because it has one of the best education curriculums around. I actually changed my major halfway through my junior year,” he said, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Leisure, Youth and Human Services.
His two paid internships — working with the ground crew at Iowa Cubs games at Principal Park as well as the assistant to the Des Moines’ parks and recreation director — proved equally invaluable, even if he joked he probably “got five days off that entire summer.”
His university teachers and advisors “encouraged me to do something different (with his internships); to gather different experiences, so I did (just that).” And what valuable experiences they were. “I got very lucky. I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without those educational experiences from UNI.”
It also didn’t hurt that his father, Tony, had worked for 30-plus years as the parks and recreation director in Fort Dodge, Iowa — Salvatore’s hometown.
“I wouldn’t have gone into the field without his influence,” Salvatore said. “By recommending my first summer job, he intentionally started me down my career path.”
After graduation, he worked for roughly 10 years leading the parks and recreation departments at both Sheldon and Ida Grove, Iowa — “I was the custodian, running programs, cutting grass, you name it.”
After serving briefly as the recreation manager in Des Moines, he assumed his present duties in Sioux City, a community of 80,000-plus residents.
UNI’s educational values, the hands-on internships he tackled, and the years spent serving residents in smaller towns “all really helped me get to where I am today,” he said. UNI