May 24, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Outing Clubs: Education in the School of Life

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On April 11, the Penn State Outing Club was forced to end its 98 year relationship with the outdoors. Starting next semester, the club will not be allowed to organize student-led trips due to it “being above the University’s threshold of acceptable risk for recognized student organizations.” It was a devastating blow, but the club is fighting back. For nearly 100 years, this club has fostered an appreciation of the natural environment, leadership, outdoor skills and camaraderie. Together with their strong alumni network they are now fighting to regain the ability to provide these compelling outdoor experiences. We, the Cornell Outing Club (COC) strongly support PSOC in their fight. We understand the value of the Outing Club to the Penn State campus, students and alumni because we have experienced similar benefits through our own club. And, we believe that the precipitating safety concerns are ill-informed and overblown given the well-documented safety-minded culture and practices of PSOC. We are similarly concerned about risks, taking significant measures to ensure participant safety and continually refine our protocols.

For several years leading up to their removal, the Penn State Outing Club had worked extensively with the school’s administration to strengthen their safety protocols. For each outing detailed itineraries and emergency plans were submitted to the club’s executive board and a trip safety officer was designated who held a Wilderness First Aid certification or higher. Additionally, on multi-day trips, there were daily check-ins with a club member back at the University.

We take similar precautionary measures to ensure the risks we encounter provide this experience in a safe environment. Trips are tailored to specific skill levels; it is not uncommon to see a trip announced which is marketed only for experts. Beginner trips are often led by club leaders who hold extensive wilderness medical certifications and a history of trip leadership. Before a trip begins, club chairs (who are student experts in their field) make sure participants are qualified, and, if necessary, turn down individuals if this is not the case. Additionally, COC has started holding First Aid certifications and include additional training for outdoor medical emergencies. Next semester, we plan on expanding the frequency and scale of these trainings and are constantly looking for other ways to improve our safety protocols.  These precautions speak for themselves: there have been no major injuries on COC trips in recent years.

Additionally, these protocols provide a unique learning environment for individuals to develop their own leadership and agency skills. Students take responsibilities for the safety of themselves and others. This is a rare opportunity as student life becomes more monotonous, increasingly characterized by bureaucratic and draconian regulations. As a result of this club structure, we have witnessed individuals be incredibly comprehensive in planning and executing their trips.

The Outing Club plays a crucial role in the Cornell community. Low membership fees ($10/semester) ensure that the outdoors, and the knowledge needed to enjoy them, is accessible to all. We offer an alternative space that values accessibility, self-empowerment and safe decision-making: an open social community for individuals, from the beginner to the expert, to connect with others and appreciate Ithaca’s natural beauty. Study after study has shown that the outdoors improves young adult’s mental health and cognitive ability. Such benefits are necessary in a school characterized by its stress and heavy workload. We stand with the Penn State Outing Club and embrace the outdoors for the lessons they have to offer: a higher education in the school of life.

Nikola Protic ’18

Joshua Lachs ’21

Kathryn Zimmerman ’18

Emma Renner ’20

Anya Sherman ’20

Chris Pelzer, advisor