NewsCampus Life

New to the neighborhood: Outdoor House returns with a focus on accessible outdoor education

Feb. 23, 2022, 9:24 p.m.

Outdoor House will return to campus next year with a focus on increased accessibility through cheaper, less-strenuous outdoor activities and public service work. It was previously discontinued before the 2021–22 academic year.

Located in Trancos in Neighborhood T, the theme house will partner with the School of Earth Sciences and the Stanford Adventure Program to bring students a myriad of meaningful outdoor adventures and experiences.

The house’s removal from campus coincided with the implementation of ResX in fall 2021, the University’s new residential framework. Stanford officials cited the house’s failure to advance the “core principles of ResX,” contending that the house fell short of diversity, equity and inclusion expectations and lacked robust support from faculty mentors. 

While faculty members wrote housing applications for other approved academic theme houses, such as At Home Abroad House, Outdoor House’s application for the 2021–22 academic year was authored by students and endorsed by only one faculty member and seven staff members. The Undergraduate Residence Governance Council wrote last year that Outdoor House should work to pursue “meaningful engagement with faculty and staff in the important areas of equity and inclusion to more fully address the cultural concerns of the previous outdoor house.”

This year, Outdoor House community leaders are committed to turning the house culture into a more accessible environment. As a potential resident assistant (RA) for the house next year, Paxton Scott ’23 envisions that weekend trips will primarily be close to campus and not require any previous camping experience or out-of-pocket purchases. Scott is also a former editor for The Daily.

Through funding from the ResX program, the Stanford Adventure Program and the School of Earth Sciences, Scott hopes that Outdoor House’s weekend trips next year will “have as low a barrier to entrance as possible.” Any potential gear requirements will be provided by the house’s partnership with the Stanford Adventure Program, the University’s premier program for outdoor education and camping trips to students.

That commitment to accessibility has not always been present among the Outdoor House community, former residents acknowledged. In a Letter to the Community, former residents wrote that the residence has historically “been a center of whiteness, wealth and privilege.”

“Centered on expensive hobbies, the house has not shown enough regard to the people we exclude, the land we recreate on, or perspectives outside the mainstream interpretation of outdoor recreation,” they wrote.

Before the pandemic, Outdoor House would often host trips in places like the Sierra Nevadas or Mount Shasta. These trips required driving long distances or having access to specific gear, according to former Outdoor House resident Sean Roelofs ’22 M.S. ’23. While Roelofs himself has fond memories attached to some of those trips, he also recognizes that previous iterations of Outdoor House have underutilized spaces closer to campus.

“We have beautiful mountains that are a 30-minute drive from us. Why can’t all of our Outdoor House retreats be there?” Roelofs said. “Within the Bay Area, there are a ton of spaces. It’s a lot more accessible to people who don’t have time to drive eight extra hours.”

Sue Lowley, director of the Stanford Adventure program and head of Stanford’s Outdoor Education Program, also emphasized the important role of Stanford offices as sources of financial assistance for students.

Lowley and her team are unsure of how much financial support Outdoor House will receive, given that the Stanford Adventure Program begins their budgeting process for the next academic year in March.

Even so, Lowley wants the Stanford Adventure Program to be “more than the gear bank” for Outdoor House. As a leader in the field of outdoor education, Lowley hopes to share her knowledge about what it means to engage with the outdoors.

“I think one of the barriers can be a perception of, ‘That’s not my thing,’” Lowley said. “The harder challenge is to start to disrupt the perception of the outdoors. And I think that’s done through creating welcoming environments. I think it’s done by offering programs that can hit different levels of interest.”

Increasing representation of marginalized groups in the house may be another step in the right direction, Lowley said, drawing on her experiences in the field of outdoor engagement.

“I know that until I saw women working at Outward Bound and NOLS, I didn’t think I could do that — I couldn’t be an instructor,” Lowley said. “Representation is going to be really important.”

Eric Bear ’23, who applied to be an RA for Outdoor House next year, echoed Lowley’s sentiment. Bear hopes that the themed residence will help people view simpler, less-strenuous activities as a healthy, more-inclusive alternative to what he calls “conquest-based” activities. Some of those simpler activities, to him, include playing frisbee, painting outdoors or going for dish hikes or walks around campus.

By centering the house on these more accessible forms of engagement, Bear believes that the house will “invite more folks who have not necessarily been exposed” to the outdoors and allow everyone to “start to really appreciate the ways in which people experience the outdoors in ways that are not that classic model.”

Changing Outdoor House’s approach to outdoor engagement, however, does not mean that the house will completely abandon its weekend trips to far away destinations.

“I think there is some value to having some amount of excitement or adventure,” Roelofs said, adding that being immersed in nature also helps people care more about the environment and the outdoors more broadly. Striking a balance will be a challenge for the house, but should be possible with the support of the Stanford Adventure Program and School of Earth Sciences.

“We do some things first, before we go and climb mountains,” Lowley said.  “Every step, we kind of introduce folks to the skill sets and decision-making models that you need.”

To avoid missing out on housing for the second year in a row, Outdoor House is required to fill 50% of their residence through the pre-assignment process for the 2022–23 academic year.

While a lack of familiarity with Outdoor House among frosh and sophomores may be a barrier to engagement, Outdoor House’s leadership team remain confident that the house will be popular among students.

Historically, generating student interest has not been a problem for the theme house — in 2019, Outdoor House received 90 pre-assignment applications for 27 spots. In the draw process that same year, Outdoor House was ranked in Tier One, and any students who wished to live there needed a draw number higher than 291. Currently, 65 students have signed their names on a spreadsheet expressing interest in living in Outdoor House next year.

Outdoor House leadership is also planning to build relationships with different organizations and centers around campus, according to Scott.

Rob Dunbar, an earth systems science professor and one of the faculty members who will be working with Outdoor House next year, said he hopes to see the residence work closely with the Haas Center for Public Service. This partnership would allow Outdoor House to work with local communities on issues related to the environment and further broaden the definition of outdoor engagement for the residence.

Dunbar is no stranger to environmentally focused public service work. As a professor, Dunbar has worked to enhance STEM education at lower-performing high schools in the area. As part of this mission, Dunbar took students to the Pacific Ocean for one of his first lessons — a trip that most of the high school students, despite living 10 miles away, had never made.

“It’s a good example of how we’ve got nature all around us and a spectacular feature in the form of the largest ocean on Earth … and they haven’t been there,” Dunbar said.

A partnership with Haas would allow Outdoor House to do similar work and potentially draw interest from underrepresented members of the Stanford community, according to Dunbar.

Alex Acceta ’92 M.S. ’93, executive director of Wellness and Recreation and a staff member who is working with Outdoor House next year, believes that the residence’s return will also provide more students with opportunities to not only enjoy the outdoors, but recognize the diversity of people engaging in different forms of outdoor activities.

“How can people realize that there are a lot of people of different backgrounds, different races, different genders, different identities, doing really cool stuff in your backyard?” Acceta asked. Acceta hopes Outdoor House can be part of that answer.

This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Eric Bear’s views on outdoor activities. It has also been updated to reflect that Eric Bear applied to be a resident assistant for Outdoor House next year. The Daily regrets this error.

Carolyn Stein is a Desk Editor for Campus Life and a co-Audience Engagement Editor. She is double majoring in communications and East Asian studies. Her favorite activity is going on unnecessarily long walks. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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