September 24, 2012

‘An Oasis of Madness Amidst a Pompous Academic Institution:’ Cornell Outdoor Education Turns 40

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Forty years ago, David Morrissey Moriah ’72 was determined to get his fellow classmates out from behind their books and into the woods.

“I would found an oasis of madness amidst a pompous academic institution that takes itself far too seriously,” Moriah said, according to COE’s website.

Today, as Cornell Outdoor Education — the product of Moriah’s vision — celebrates its 40th anniversary, COE Executive Director Todd Miner said the program has exceeded that dream and possibly more.

“I think that in size, equipment and resources, the student leaders from 40 years ago would not recognize the program,” Miner said.

Although COE offers services that were not available when the program began in 1972, such as an outfitting and rental service, a team and leadership center, two climbing walls and more, Miner says that the spirit of the program has not changed.

“We still teach experientially,” Miner said about the program’s spirit. “It is all about the experience.”

Miner said that the most important parts of COE’s identity are its “connection to the environment” and the fact that it is taught by student leaders.

The program was founded by approximately 25 undergraduate instructors, who taught participants various skills in leadership and outdoor activities. Today, COE has more than 150 student instructors, according to Miner.

As the program grew, student leaders wanted more opportunities for leadership and outdoor training — resulting in the creation of more physical education classes to cater to these needs, Miner said.

Cornell’s location gives students unique chances to explore the outdoors through classes such as caving or tree climbing, according to Miner. In addition, the University offers various “soft adventure” options such as outdoor yoga and backcountry cooking, he said.

Charlotte Ambrozek ’13, a COE instructor, said she believes that Cornell’s outdoor education program is unique compared to those at other universities.

“I don’t think that any [other program] is as comprehensive as the one we have here,” she said.

In August, Cornell placed fifth on Outside Magazine’s list of the “Top 25 Colleges for Outside Readers.” The magazine cited Cornell’s location, “impressive array” of outdoor education activities and its Outdoor Odyssey program.

Outdoor Odyssey — a pre-orientation program that sends incoming freshmen on outdoor adventure trips — gives new students the chance to get the “inside scoop” on life at Cornell from undergraduate leaders, Miner said.

Laura Kennedy ’13, an Outdoor Odyssey coordinator, said that the program allows students to connect with their peers and meet upperclassmen before starting their first semester at Cornell.

“The community provides networks between people who would not meet otherwise,” Kennedy said.

As COE continues to evolve, so does their message.

In recent years, the program has begun to work alongside Gannett Health Services to promote wellness by offering programs to help relieve student stress, Miner said. For instance, COE now offers outdoor activities for students to unwind during exams week.

“If the students don’t get off the quad or out of Collegetown, Cornell is doing them a disservice,” Miner said.

Kennedy added that outdoor education gives students an opportunity to escape from academic rigor year-round.

“[Outdoor education] provides people an outlet to get outdoors and challenge themselves,” she said.

Miner attributed the longevity of the program to “student passion” — as well as to generous donations from alumni and continued support from the University.

In the future, he said, COE hopes to expand by continuing to work with the University and by reaching out to other student groups to collaborate on getting more students outdoors.

“I think its something that should be available to everyone,” Ambrozek said.

Original Author: Tyler Alicea