Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut launches with inaugural gathering at Conn
Anna Laprise ’20 heard a mysterious rustling of leaves, and then, in an explosive burst, an alarmed rabbit came charging from the woods and darted across the hiking path. An instant later, it became obvious what the rabbit was running from.
“A huge Fisher Cat darted out just behind the rabbit and then they both disappeared again into the woods,” Laprise recalled, pointing out that the elusive Fisher—a member of the notoriously ill-tempered weasel family—offered a stark reminder of the relationship between predator and prey in the natural world.
That encounter was one of many memorable experiences Laprise and her fellow students have shared as part of Conn’s Outdoor Adventures program, which offers a variety of opportunities to explore the New England wilderness.
The program, which initially began in the spring of 2018 as a club organization, is now a formal program in the Office of Student Life that provides a number of ever-expanding trips and outings that range from week-long camping excursions to local kayaking activities. The multiple kayaking trips have been so popular that the program forged a partnership with New England Science and Sailing, a non-profit that has collaborated on several trips near campus.
For a passionate environmentalist and Maine native like Laprise, the program was a perfect way to continue enjoying her love of the outdoors in college and to connect with students who shared her interests.
“I’ve spent my entire life backpacking, camping, hiking, skiing, biking, kayaking and surfing, and what I love about this program is that it really promotes a sense of community among Conn students and teaches a real respect for the environment,” Laprise said.
After Geoff Norbert, assistant dean of student engagement and new student programs, launched Outdoor Adventures as a pilot program, he realized he had underestimated the extraordinary level of student interest.
“From the start, the response to the offerings has been overwhelming,” Norbert said. “The day we released the schedule, many of the trips filled up within a few hours, and one backpacking trip had enough people on the waitlist to plan an entire separate trip.”
Each trip has at least two student leaders who have been interviewed and selected by Norbert. Thus far, all student leaders—15 in total—have gone on to earn a Level II kayaking certification from the American Canoe Association.
Sophia McLaughlin ’20, a student leader who has been involved with the program since her first semester at Conn, said the trips have given her opportunities to expand her social group. She’s especially proud of the growth she’s seen among the students who have participated.
“I’ve always been a real nature enthusiast, and watching people fall in love with the outdoors during these trips has been incredibly gratifying,” McLaughlin said. “It’s exciting to be part of a program that has undergone such an impressive transition from a small club into a College program that is constantly expanding and offering more trips and a wider variety of activities.
“Conn is located near so many rich natural resources that the potential for outdoor education is limitless.”
Griffin Taylor ’20, who also serves as a student leader, said that one of the key philosophies driving Outdoor Adventures since its earliest days has been that a student’s personal finances shouldn’t limit participation.
“For students who feel like they can’t pay but who truly want to participate in one of our outdoor trips, the fees are waived,” Taylor said. “This is about giving students an opportunity to get outside of their comfort zones and push themselves. For me, getting outdoors and challenging myself physically and mentally has helped me develop a drive in other aspects of my life, including academics,” he added.
Taylor said he enjoys the freedom Norbert gives him and other student leaders to design particular trips and tailor them to their personal interests and skill sets. Student agency has resulted in a number of successful trips, from a snowshoeing expedition in the Adirondacks to backpacking along a section of the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut.
Norbert believes giving students that sense of ownership and responsibility over the trips is essential.
“Outdoor programming can have a huge impact on students by building self-confidence and teaching transferable leadership skills that our students will use on campus and once they graduate from Conn,” Norbert said. “What’s unique about these educational opportunities is that the classroom is the outdoors.”