Here at Yale, we have snippets of greenery — ivy draping a wall or a stately oak dappling the grass on Old Campus. We pass through these spaces on our way to class or maybe linger for an hour, absorbed in a book supported by a sturdy trunk. We also live in a city nicknamed for the leafy giants that share space with the built environment.
Beyond the physical greenery, nature appears within the culture and discourse of Yale — a class about wilderness, an orientation program that plunges incoming students into the woods for half a week, an outdoors club. We have an excellent school of forestry and a robust Environmental Studies Department. Each provides a unique way of engaging with nature as a concept. Unfortunately, there is historically little to no communication or collaboration between these different groups. Due to the lack of a coherent structure for outdoor life and opportunities at Yale, it’s challenging for Yalies to take advantage of the many benefits the outdoors have to offer.
However, student-led collaboration is increasing among these groups. As one of the co-coordinators of Yale Outdoors, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with members and leaders of groups like FOOT and Westies at FES. Through the creation of these connections, I’m realizing how much we have in common, and how much better we would serve the Yale community if we acted in concert. For instance, Yale Outdoors and the Environmental Studies or American Studies Departments could have co-hosted a discussion about the depiction of natural spaces during last semester’s exhibition about Yosemite at the Yale University Art Gallery. Or Payne Whitney could co-sponsor wilderness medicine education classes with the outdoors club, creating greater publicity, increased participation and safer outdoor excursions. Increased communication would result in a wider range of multifaceted programs, drawing upon the strengths of each organization to create new partnerships and conceptual connections.
I’m not arguing for all of Yale’s outdoor resources to be collapsed into a single, homogenous entity. This would do a disservice to the unique skills and contributions that each group has to offer. Rather, I propose that Yale should invest in a center for the outdoors, an umbrella that would allow for a convergence of outdoor-related groups and would support outdoor life and resources at Yale. It would be a centralized news source for outdoor-related events and programs at the University and a portal to the plethora of existing avenues for exploring nature. Staff, students and the administration could draw upon this office for the development of new skills, experiences and resources. This isn’t a novel idea. Dartmouth’s outdoor program receives administrative support for a large range of organizations and activities, from first year trips to PE classes to wilderness safety training.
At Yale, a third of the incoming class goes on FOOT and over 2000 students receive the Yale Outdoors newsletter each week. Yale students want to go outside. But the lack of administrative structure supporting outdoor-related activities means that none of the outdoors groups receive adequate resources to meet the demand. We need sufficient funding to provide trips free of cost so that financial barriers don’t prevent participation; a centralized gear room so that students can borrow equipment if they don’t own it; and financial support for wilderness medicine training so that students can safely enjoy outdoor spaces.
There is mounting evidence that a connection to nature improves human health. Yale strongly promotes wellness but has overlooked the huge benefits that accompany time spent in natural spaces. It has overlooked the good that comes from spending a weekend hiking in New Hampshire, forging new friendships with other Yale students in a setting outside of the campus bubble. It has overlooked the leadership skills that emerge from learning to travel safely through the woods. In this, it has fallen behind schools like Brown, whose Outdoor Leadership Training program uses outdoor spaces as a setting for cultivation of leadership and personal development. Or Stanford, whose Outdoor Education organization advises other campus partners on outdoor education experiences, integrating trips into other realms of student life such as the Recreation & Wellness program or the Student Activities and Leadership office. Should Yale choose to invest resources in a center for the outdoors, it will be able to offer its community new avenues for pursuing wellness, community and leadership. The desire is there, but we need the resources.
Emma Spence is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .