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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Outdoor center expands offerings amid pandemic

Changes in university restrictions allow 10-person trips, low cost rentals

A hiker stands in an alpine meadow.
A hiker stands in an alpine meadow. The Western Washington University Associated Students Outdoor Center was recently allowed to take 10 person groups on local day hikes, as well as offer weekend equipment rentals. // Photo courtesy of Holly Mandarich via Unsplash

By Rowan Forsythe

Western Washington University’s Associated Students Outdoor Center has shifted its focus towards affordability during the COVID-19 pandemic. With student’s mental and physical health hanging in the balance, the Outdoor Center is attempting to keep students active despite safety restrictions limiting options for exercise. 

“It’s really been placing the value and importance on people’s mental health and physical health,” said Stephen Magnuson, the Outdoor Center’s program coordinator. “There has been a fine balance of offering services and activities, but also ensuring the safety and health of everyone involved.” 

Magnuson noted that university guidelines have severely limited the array of services available at the Outdoor Center. Excursions have been reduced in both size and location, while equipment maintenance services and rentals were absent for the majority of the year. 

“In general the [COVID-19] response team has been really supportive, especially in initiatives that involve getting students outdoors,” Magnuson said. “But, you know, obviously we are in the middle of a pandemic and so [we’re] also respecting needs and policies put in place.” 

While university restrictions have kept the Outdoor Center’s shop closed, the change has resulted in significant cost savings for students interested in equipment service or rentals. 

“If they want to get their bike serviced, or skis and snowboards waxed, we do that for free,” said Kailey Hickey, equipment shop coordinator and fourth-year student employee. Hickey added that while they are only offering weekend rentals for safety and sanitization purposes, students only have to pay for one day. 

The weekend-only restriction comes from a COVID-19 safety related shift which allows staff time to properly sanitize equipment before and after rental. 

According to Magnuson, budget flexibility comes from the reduction of programs, staffing and operational costs. For students, additional funds at the center mean excursion trips are now no-cost and often provide free food. The change aims to encourage students to get outside during a challenging time without the burden of paying. 

For student coordinators Hickey and Ben Crandall, increasing said accessibility for students has become a key part of their work. 

Crandall said his aspirations to eventually make “trips free for all students or decrease their cost” as well as working on diversity, equity and inclusion training for all staff. For Hickey, her goal is to increase student interest in purchasing adaptable equipment for those with physical disabilities. 

According to Dr. Sandra Slater, professor and director of the public health bachelor’s program at Concordia University in Wisconsin, students should take advantage of the low-cost opportunities like those provided by the Outdoor Center to get outside as the weather improves. 

“Staying physically active is very important for your physical health, but also … it’s very good for mental health, in terms of connection to reducing anxiety, reducing depression and potentially also reducing stress levels,” Slater said. “Even just walking across campus … nature also has its own kind of association with improving mental health outcomes.”

Though Slater’s work focuses primarily on public policy and the benefits of physical activity, Slater noted that students with COVID-19 related health concerns should consider outdoor activities to be a safer alternative to indoor recreation spaces. 

In order to promote physical and mental health among students, the Outdoor Center has teamed up with the Western Counseling Center to offer an outdoor wellness event in late May. Recent changes in the Western Safe Start status have allowed expanded group sizes of 10 at the event. 

Magnuson said the Outdoor Center plans to carry the increased group size of 10 over to all excursions while offering weekday rental services in response to the eased restrictions. 

“It’s an internal decision to say, ‘Can we safely even have 10 people on a trip?’” said Crandall. “It’s still a conversation of [COVID-19] safety.” 

Rowan Forsythe is a visual journalism major and junior at Western. Convinced he disliked writing until his sophomore year, Rowan has now covered topics from homelessness to school sports. You can reach him at rforsythe.thefront@gmail.com, and view his photography portfolio here.

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