By Joe Garvey

Old Dominion University’s Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP) provides students with opportunities for surfing, backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing and mountain biking, among other activities.

But the program is about much more than exploring nature.

Brandon Schultheis, a senior civil engineering major who is entering his fourth year as a trip leader, can attest to that. He recalled this year’s spring break trip to the Suwannee River in Florida.

“We had a large variety of students that probably wouldn't have crossed paths if it wasn't for the trip,” he said. “We had international students, graduate students and a variety of undergrads. By the end of the trip, they were all friends and hanging out even after we got back.

Students in a forest

“It's always fulfilling getting to share your love of the outdoors with others and seeing friendships blossom,” said trip leader Brandon Schultheis.

“It's always fulfilling getting to share your love of the outdoors with others and seeing friendships blossom.”

That’s a major benefit of the program, said Erik Edwards, coordinator of outdoor adventure programs in the Department of Recreation and Wellness.

“I know students are connecting all the time on campus in different ways, whether they’re hanging out in dorms or the rec center or doing intramural sports,” he said. “But I think there’s something to be said for a student getting out of their comfort zone, going camping for multiple days at a time, getting to know students on a deeper level when you’re in that sort if environment.”

Hundreds of students have taken advantage of these opportunities since the program was founded in 2006. In the last 12 months alone, nearly 230 went on OAP trips, Edwards said.

This semester appoximately 20 activities are planned. Some – such as evening paddles, themed climbing nights at the Student Recreation Center and campfire building and s’mores nights – are held on campus. But many are off campus over weekends. Among them are whitewater rafting the James River in Richmond; surfing off Ocracoke Island; biking and surfing at False Cape State Park; backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Mountains; rock climbing in Harrisonburg; camping at Kiptopeke State Park; and spelunking in Glade Cave.

Over the semester break, a four-day rafting and hiking trip is planned at New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. After graduation in May 2024, the OAP is planning a trip to Costa Rica.

Edwards stressed that no experience is necessary to participate in the program.

“Our trip leaders will teach you the way,” Edwards said. “You’ll do some of that stuff by yourself and learn by doing it. The ones that are really interested and really buy into the program are a big backbone of what we do.”

Three trip leaders go on every outing. Edwards said their training is “thorough and rigorous.”

“Once they’re out there, they have the autonomy to make the decisions that they need to make,” Edwards said, adding that the leaders have satellite phones in case they need to contact him.

Stone Casey, a junior computer science and engineering management major, has been a trip leader for about a year and a half. During one trip to Ocracoke Island, a severe thunderstorm knocked out cell service and flooded the island.

“Our team had to evacuate out of the island less than 48 hours after we arrived,” he said. “To pass the time, the trip leaders and participants sang sea shanties on the ferry ride back to the mainland.”

He added that the most important thing he has gotten out of the program is “self-leadership.”

“In our program, we are taught to lead others as well as leading ourselves,” he explained. “I have taken that information in my everyday life, and I have seen success in every avenue I have applied that mindset to. Trip leading has taught me life skills, survival skills and social skills. However, I feel the most valuable thing I have obtained is confidence in myself.”

“We train under the principle of always getting feedback, and that has been invaluable to me in my professional career during my internships,” Schultheis added. “Not only have I learned how to develop from feedback, but my confidence, leadership and teaching skills have also greatly improved because of it.”

Edwards, who joined the program in 2017 as a graduate assistant as he worked toward his master’s degree, hopes participants in the program develop that same kind of confidence and carry it over when they’re facing academic challenges.

“Hopefully they can look back and think, ‘Well, I did this 12-mile, three-day hike with the Outdoor Adventure Program where it rained on us. I was uncomfortable for some of the time. But I made it through that, and I think I can make it through this final,’” he said.

The OAP is accepting applications for trip leaders through Sept. 17. To submit an application, or to sign up for any of the activities, go to this link.