Outdoor Pursuits

Name: Jenna McLaughlin

Year: Class of 2014

Major: Writing Seminars

As a senior in the fall semester of my final year at Johns Hopkins, I find myself doing some obligatory reminiscing about my experiences here—what I’ve learned, what I’ve done, and what I’ll take away from Homewood.

When thinking about where and from whom I’ve learned the most valuable lessons, I find myself picturing a bright orange sea kayak.

One might expect me to picture the shelves of A Level or the bright shining stained glass windows of the Learning Den, but the place that I associate with the real growing I’ve been doing the past four years— personally, intellectually, emotionally, and otherwise—is the Outdoor Pursuits Experiential Education program and everything that comes along with it.

For those involved in Outdoor Pursuits or the Johns Hopkins Outdoors Club, I don’t need to explain the magical mix of family, learning, leadership, and fresh air these programs bring to us. But for others, I’d love to give even a dose of how these programs have shaped and developed its members.

Before I arrived at Johns Hopkins, my parents decided to give me a graduation gift: a ticket to the Multi-Element Outdoors Pre-Orientation Trip. My family has always been outdoorsy, and I own my own sea kayak. We go hiking and boating and climbing in the North East all the time. Naturally, I wanted to be involved in a week long outdoors trip with my fellow future classmates. What could be better? I’d get the chance to meet a few people, camp out, learn some new outdoors skills like rock climbing, white water rafting, tent pitching, and more. But what I got out of Pre-Orientation was so much more than that.

Pre-Orientation is a crazy mixture of exuberant singing, late night card playing, “manning up” to finish all the food, leaving no trace in nature, casual soccer juggling circles, fireside conversations, playing mind games, no showers, no phones, no clocks, and pure bonding time. People got to know you at your most tired state, your most gross, and your most natural. I remember arriving back on campus and my parents telling me they’d never seen me that way before—so grown up, proud, and sure of myself, as I walked into my new freshman suite with a backpack bigger than me and a week’s worth of sweat and grime coating my skin. I was really ready to begin the newest phase of my life, and had an army of new friends to face it with.

My Pre-Orientation leaders urged me to apply to be an Outdoor Pursuits leader after we returned to campus. However, I was heavily involved in the new atmosphere of college, having recently earned a spot on the women’s club soccer team and easing into a demanding course load and enjoyable social life. I liked the freedom, and I wasn’t sure I had the time and money to apply and do all the training that comes along with being an outdoors instructor. I missed the deadline my freshman year, but that didn’t keep Outdoor Pursuits out of my life for very long.

By the time my sophomore year rolled around, I found myself going on a lot of weekend trips with Outdoor Pursuits—especially sea kayaking. I’d been a touring kayaker since I was 10 or 11, and had pretty decent paddling skills. I knew most of the basic strokes, the endurance it took to paddle long distances. And a lot of my close friends were Outdoor Pursuits leaders, including my soccer captain and Pre-O leader.

That year’s intersession, she convinced me to go on an 11 day sea kayaking expedition in the Florida Everglades. I was the only member of that trip that wasn’t already a leader, but I was dedicated to keeping up and proving myself. It was the most amazing trip I’ve ever been on by far. I saw the most incredible wildlife, including manatees, dolphins, tropical birds, and sea turtles, camped on an abandoned ruin in the middle of the Ten Thousand Islands, learned how to pitch a tent in the sand, and got dangerously (though safely!) close to a few alligators. I developed close relationships with the professional leaders involved and my fellow students. After going on this intersession trip, I decided that my junior fall would be the time I’d finally apply to be a leader.


Last fall, I went through the rigorous application, interview, and final selection process and was chosen to join the Outdoor Pursuits sea kayaking program—one of the oldest new instructors chosen on record. Since then, I have attended countless new instructor meetings, sea kayaking trainings, day trips, and went through the Wilderness First Responder course to learn wilderness medicine. These lessons didn’t feel like school at all though. Wilderness First Responder (fondly called WFR, or Woofer), taught me responsibility and leadership in dire situations that I may never have had the confidence for previously. I was a member of the first responder team to pass the exam first in the class. I learned that being a Writing Seminars major didn’t hold me back from excelling in a practical, scientific, medical practice. Countless hours in the classroom and practicing posed medical emergencies, out in the woods at freezing temperatures for hours late at night, brought me more joy and enrichment than I could possibly have imagined. It was an especially rewarding experience, as I arranged an agreement with the Outdoor Pursuits Office to work during the week on paperwork to pay for part of the course.

With Outdoor Pursuits, I’ve cross-trained in white water kayaking and done my best to learn challenging new skills in the coldest water I’ve ever felt over spring break, bonded with students from every class at Johns Hopkins, learned how to tie cool knots, and really developed myself.


A few weeks ago, a brand new crop of instructors were chosen, and I got the chance to write recommendations and help instruct applicants on the finer points of leading sea kayaking trips. I got to see my grand-little in my sorority excel in the field, and be chosen as one of the four new sea kayaking leaders. In just a short year, I’ve been able to learn such an incredible amount of technical and emotional life skills, making me a much more confident leader—ready to enter the next phase of my life—the scary real world of the job market. With Outdoor Pursuit’s help, I don’t have any doubts I’ll be ready.


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