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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Column: Nature’s lessons shouldn’t be out of reach for students

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail last year, I feel stuck in DC.

I leaned against the wooden sign that marked the end of my journey, tears in my eyes as I realized the summer of 2022 had ended — “Katahdin. Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail.” The person who started in Georgia, reshaped by the trail’s lessons, was not the same person standing atop the highest point in Maine.

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail last year, I feel stuck between the concrete and glass buildings that surround me on a daily basis in the District. Sirens have replaced songbirds, trails have turned to cracked pavement and the fresh air has soured to car exhaust.

The costs of transportation, equipment and park fees can deter people — especially college students at an urban campus like GW — from accessing wilderness areas. To lower the barrier of entry to the outdoors for all students, the University should fund outdoor programs.

Students need more than just patches of grass, Rock Creek Park or the National Mall — we need access to forests, meadows and rivers that are safe for swimming and fishing. In other words, we need the ability to leave the city, to reset, reflect and walk under the canopy of the forest and feel free. For me, backpacking provides temporary solace from the noise of the city. When I’m outside, my life is unaffected by the actions of others. I move at my own pace listening to only myself and nature, feeling small among the grandness of the world.

By no means am I advocating for making GW a more rural campus: I love D.C. But I also need the forests and all that they promise — we all do. For students without cars, accessing the outdoors can be difficult. Shenandoah National Park is about 70 miles from Foggy Bottom, and closer parks like Scott’s Run Nature Preserve and Great Falls Park are inaccessible via public transportation.

While we struggle to connect with wilderness spaces outside of the city, college students in places like Boulder, Colorado or Bellingham, Washington live within a stone’s throw away from natural features like the Flatirons Mountains and the wilderness of Mount Baker. D.C. is located farther away from comparable wilderness areas in the mid-Atlantic, placing more responsibility on GW to help students access out-of-reach outdoor areas.

A solution to our current problem is funding outdoor groups like GW TRAiLS, which organizes outdoor trips for students. The prices for these trips range from $20 to $200 — that’s just too high for many students. According to the Student Association 2023-24 General Allocations Budget Book, TRAiLS only receives enough funding to cover one-third of the cost of trips, burdening students with covering the remaining two-thirds.

Funding from the SA, or through a membership model, could drive costs down. Like with U-Pass, students could pay a one-time up-front fee for unlimited access to TRAiLS trips. Dartmouth University, the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Virginia all use a membership model to generate yearly revenue streams to keep trips free or at a lower cost. Granted, this would require significant buy-in from students and mean TRAiLS would have to accommodate more members.

Either way, the goal should be to reduce costs and increase access to the outdoors, an idea that seems to be an afterthought at GW. While other universities, like the University of Washington, integrate outdoor activities into their campus recreation offices, GW outsources these responsibilities to TRAiLS. It is disheartening that this school appears not to prioritize outdoor experiences, especially when these opportunities have tremendous value for students.

Nature gives us space to reflect and reconnect with ourselves without the blur of cities. Canoeing on lakes and sleeping in tents at summer camp, playing with ants and the insects that live underneath rocks, finding a swimming hole with friends, going on family road trips to national parks — there is no substitute for the memories, the lessons and the friends made through the naturalness of the Earth.

Forests, parks, birds and trees mean more in life than any office building or cubicle. These lessons are taught outside — lessons that no lecture or textbook could ever offer and lessons we should all have the fortune of learning here at GW.

Chandler Sam, a senior majoring in ecology and English, is an opinions writer.

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