Northwestern Outdoors Club isn’t indoors anymore


Photo courtesy of Ava Mandoli

Two students pose for a picture in Indiana Dunes State Park. Northwestern Outdoors Club took a group of students to the park this Saturday, where they hiked along the dunes and swam in Lake Michigan.

Lucia Barnum, Reporter

In the weeks leading up to Spring Break 2020, then-Weinberg freshman Andrew Laeuger spent hours arranging and rearranging hiking gear in his backpack. He had to organize it perfectly, he said, for the Northwestern Outdoors Club trip to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.

“I was all ready to basically pick it up and walk out the door as soon as it was time to go to our flights,” said Laeuger, vice president of NUOC. “Then the world started to fall apart.”

COVID-19 concerns cancelled that trip. Since then, NUOC has run an outdoors club almost entirely over Zoom. Now, after nearly two years, the club is transitioning back to in-person trips. And its popularity is booming, members of the executive board said. 

NUOC president Sofia Schillace, a McCormick senior, said the organization added close to 400 people to its email list this year. In the year before COVID-19 hit, only about 100 people signed up. 

In the past, trips have filled up within five to 15 minutes of sending out the sign-up form. The club’s recent trip to Indiana Dunes State Park, the first official hiking trip of the year, filled up in about three minutes, both Laeuger and Schillace said.

“It’s an overwhelming enthusiasm for the outdoors, especially among people who are just now arriving on campus,” Laeuger said. “They’re ready to get involved and go out and enjoy the outdoors, whether (it’s) their very first time going on a hike or they’ve been hiking all their life.”

Schillace became president of NUOC her sophomore year right after the Spring Break trip was cancelled. She helped lead the group’s transition from backpacking trips to virtual events during the pandemic. Programming ranged from guest speaker visits to a workshop series.

Using Associated Student Government funding, NUOC also ran a program where students could apply to be reimbursed for outdoor trips on their own time. Schillace said one of her primary goals was to increase the club’s accessibility, particularly for students who can’t afford travel and gear or who don’t have outdoors experience. 

Now, NUOC helps students navigate the Student Activity Assistance Fund and uses ASG funding to lower costs for students who can’t afford trip fees. They also lend hiking gear to students who don’t own any.

Schillace said being in nature has supported her mental health. She wants to create an accessible community on campus for others to enjoy the outdoors, too.

“Making sure that those spaces are available and people know how to get access to them has always been important to me and a part of the reason why I wanted to lead NUOC,” Schillace said. 

Weinberg sophomore Lori Gerstenfeld helped lead NUOC’s Saturday trip to the Indiana Dunes alongside Laeuger. She said bonding with students off-campus, especially in nature, improved her mental health.

“It was really cool to be able to just go somewhere different, out of the Northwestern bubble, and … just get away from the stress of midterms and everything going on here,” Gerstenfeld said.

For Laeuger, the moment felt full-circle. Like Gerstenfeld, the dunes trip was the first NUOC trip that he took as a freshman. Two years later, the same trip became his first experience as a NUOC leader.

One of his favorite parts of that first outing was bonding with classmates without being weighed down by schoolwork.

“Being able to walk through the sand and have conversations free of midterms, free of projects, free of homework assignments — to just be out in the outdoors with the people who enjoy being out there as much as I do — It makes this club pretty special,” Laeuger said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @luciabarnum_

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