Cecilia Nguyen and her three housemates were stranded in Death Valley, Calif., earlier this year. They had decided it would be an ideal camping location for the winter storm passing through the southern part of the state. Despite this, their lighter fell ill to 20 mile per hour winds, leaving them unable to start a fire for warmth. Luckily, they had camping kits that contained a small stove that they used to light a fire.
Nguyen, a senior majoring in psychology, received the kits through Peaks and Professors, a student organization founded in 2013 with the goal of making the outdoors more accessible. The organization’s president, Colleen Corrigan, created the kits earlier this year to make camping and other outdoor activities more available to first generation and underrepresented students at USC.
“Transportation and access to gear is a huge issue,” said Corrigan, a senior majoring in human biology and non-governmental organizations and social change and a graduate studying public health. “There’s sort of an elite attitude about the outdoors sometimes, and that just doesn’t bode well with our mission and how we feel about trying to get students outside. We’re really excited to hopefully help break down that barrier.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, trip leads that volunteered for the organization would be in charge of guiding students along weekly hikes and camping trips in the Los Angeles area.
“Our mission is really to help students to get outside and enjoy Southern California wilderness,” Corrigan said. “But our unique twist is that we do bring a professor on all of our trips.”
By bringing along a USC professor, students get the chance to see their instructors outside of the classroom and can have extensive discussions about topics outside of their major or academic interests. Nguyen, who went on a trip with Peaks and Professors to Catalina Island during her sophomore year, saw a different side of her chemistry professor who went on the trip.
“The boat ride to the island itself was so fun because we were just sitting in a circle talking with our professor, and I got to see [her in] a different light that I had never seen her with,” Nguyen said. “She brought her fiance, and it was really funny because her fiance was talking about how he failed chemistry in high school.”
In a regular school year, Peaks and Professors offer at least one trip per week. Some of the trips are hikes, like at Three T’s Trail in Mt. Baldy, and some are camping trips, such as Nguyen’s experience at Catalina Island. This trip was Nguyen’s first time camping with minimal equipment.
“I wish I did more of those … trips,” Nguyen said. “They had one like every weekend, and I didn’t know about it until too late, and then before we knew it, COVID hit, so I’m trying to recreate that in going camping now.”
When trying to plan an excursion with her housemates, Nguyen said she planned to reach out to Peaks and Professors for a tent and other necessary camping gear. However, as she was combing through her inbox she was met instead with an email from the organization offering members camping supplies. She filled out the form mentioned in the email and left her contact information.
“They emailed me back like that same morning within five hours, which was incredible,” Nguyen said.
To receive a kit, students needed to fill out a Google Form that asks about students’ past experience with camping and the logistics of their trip. Peaks and Professors then contacted the student to see if they have any questions and to work out the logistics of the trip. For Nguyen, she said her experience with getting the supplies was a positive one.
Corrigan was inspired to create the kits last fall after she saw activist Mo Jackson’s fundraiser providing camping gear to Black and Indigenous people and people of color who could otherwise not afford the equipment. The form to receive the kits also asked if the student was a first generation college student, Black and Indigenous people and people of color or of an underrepresented group. Because Peaks and Professors had to cancel all of their trips, they decided to focus their energy on making the wilderness community more inclusive at USC.
“We’ve been having conversations to try and consider the whiteness and privilege of the outdoors in general, and we wanted to spend this year … [focusing] on increasing access to the outdoors, just because everyone deserves to enjoy that and I think now more so than ever we all need it,” Corrigan said.
To receive funding for the kits, Corrigan applied for a microgrant from the USC Well-being Collective, a group consisting of different student organizations around campus, along with certain health-oriented campus departments.
“Essentially, our office works with these different key stakeholders across campus to improve well-being within their own sphere of influence,” said Andrea Moore, a health promotion specialist at USC Student Health, whose office supports the collective . “So, I work primarily with student organizations in enhancing student well-being for their membership.”
The collective has a variety of focus areas, including mental health, thriving and equity and inclusion, that are often key components of projects it supports. The premise of the kits stood out to Moore because of the project’s alignment with these goals.
“[Peaks and Professors] is hitting many of those different strategic areas,” Moore said. “They’re getting students outside, which is wonderful for people’s mental health, and their specific project is about supporting low income students to be able to have access to those types of opportunities.”
Peaks and Professors is now looking forward to planning additional virtual events and fundraising for resources to create additional kits. Upon receiving the grant, Corrigan said she is grateful for the support.
“It’s really just an affirmation of the work that we always do and the importance, I think now more so than ever, that we can’t have trips,” Corrigan said. “It was disheartening for sure because that’s our main programming, but to have the support of the University in some way shows that they are trying to support students, and they recognize that, even during COVID, there’s a real need and desire to get outside and enjoy nature.”