Junior vocal performance major and Going Global: First-Year Seminar mentor Julia Buhagiar never went camping until last spring, when she joined SU Outdoors on a spring break trip to Homosassa Springs and Crystal River, Fla. During the trip, Buhagiar slept in a tent, learned to cook meals over an open fire and swam with manatees. She described the experience of seeing a mother and baby manatee as, “…probably the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I learned to work with people I hadn’t met before, which was different,” said Buhagiar. “We all shared equally in the leadership, which made for a great team. We packed and unpacked the vans and put up the tents. It was my first camping trip, and our leaders— Stacey Keenan and Jean Lewis—were just fantastic. Some of the students had participated in Boy Scouts, so they definitely helped me as well.”
For Buhagiar, going on a SU Outdoors trip during her freshman year helped stretch her experiences beyond the classroom. Her first adventure began with a sunrise hike to Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah National Forest, and it was on that trip that Buhagiar—who describes herself as never “the outdoorsy type”— discovered how much she enjoyed the outdoors. Since then, she’s gone on several hiking trips. SU Outdoors helped her learn more about herself, interact with new people and become more confident.
“[Programs like] SU Outdoors definitely benefit students,” said Buhagiar. “As a conservatory student, it’s sometimes hard to get out and become friends with other students from different majors as well as faculty and staff. With SU Outdoors, I can stretch myself and reach out to others. It creates a community feel, like everyone is [part of ] a family.”
Assistant Director of Student Engagement/Outdoor Experience and Summer Programs Stacey Keenan helps Shenandoah students explore their interests and learn about themselves and others through outdoor adventures that include hiking, canoeing, whitewater rafting and camping. For many students, these excursions place them in unfamiliar, challenging and fun situations, where they can connect with and depend on people with whom they might normally not interact.
Keenan stresses an important aspect of the program is its focus on educating and inspiring students. “It isn’t enough to offer programs that are ‘just fun,’ the trips ensure students will experience opportunities to learn new skills and apply what they’ve learned on campus while building new relationships,” said Keenan.
Because outdoor adventures can be unpredictable in terms of weather and terrain conditions, they can also give students opportunities to discover what they’re capable of achieving, when they step beyond what is familiar and comfortable. For some, like Buhagiar, trips through SU Outdoors offer a chance to discover new interests. For others, it can become an opportunity to begin conquering their fears, like one student, who had a fear of heights, yet went on a hike that ended in a beautiful overlook at the edge of a cliff. Despite her trepidation, the student felt compelled to go on the trip to begin the process of conquering her phobia.
“I think an important part of building community is the interaction and engagement between everyone here on the campus,” said Keenan. “Everyone at Shenandoah plays a key role in the development of a college student. So it’s important to provide those opportunities where individuals, who might not normally meet each other or spend time together, can come together in a way that puts them on the same playing field.”
For new students, Shenandoah provides a strong foundation during a time of transition, exploration and growth. Through fun experiences like hiking, whitewater rafting or camping, they can apply their learning to real-life situations, create new connections and build relationships that can last a lifetime; relationships that can provide the nurturing and support students need to step outside their comfort zones and achieve their potential.
“A sense of community makes things seem easier because [the transition to] college [can be] so intimidating,” said Buhagiar. “Having that community feeling helps a lot of students, because it allows them to calm down and figure out what it is they’re supposed to be doing without getting completely overwhelmed.”