A variety of students wearing and using gear from the Outing Club pose amid a mix of different items for outdoors activities.
By Regina Velázquez | Additional reporting by Amy Lovett and Katie Maier '26 Photographs by Kris Qua

From slacklining to swimming, camping to collecting clover, students are connecting with the outdoors—and each other—through the Williams Outing Club.

 

Fiona Seibert ’24 is no stranger to the outdoors. A coxswain for the men’s crew team and an avid Nordic skier, the Arcata, Calif., native says getting outside is a great balance to her lab-intensive biology major and neuroscience concentration.

She’s also deeply involved with the Williams Outing Club (WOC), one of the college’s oldest and largest student organizations. With a stated mission “to support outdoor activities at Williams and to make the outdoors accessible to everyone, regardless of level of experience,” WOC has encouraged countless students to pause from their studies, breathe fresh air, move their bodies and deepen their connections with nature and each other through a robust and varied collection of activities, classes, events and experiences.

Seibert works in WOC’s equipment room, washing climbing gear, waxing skis and helping outfit students for their next adventure. And she’s a regular on the weekly Friday sunrise hikes up Pine Cobble.

But the experience that stands out most to her after three years of involvement with WOC? Collecting four-leaf clovers with friends in a grassy area off Walden Street.

“That was really an easy little activity,” Seibert says. “But it was so not something you would do on your own.”

Two students flying a kite
Maddy Andersen ’25 and Fiona Seibert ’24

First Experience

For many students, WOOLF—Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-Years—is their first experience of the natural beauty on campus and in the surrounding Berkshires.

Founded in 1978 and sponsored by WOC, which provides much of the gear, WOOLF seeks to help students navigate the transition from high school to college and form meaningful friendships on campus before their first semester begins. A natural draw for those who grew up involved in outdoor activities, the program has expanded its offerings over the years to entice those with little to no experience.

Each year before classes start, some 350 first-years gather their gear and divide into groups of 10 to 12. Some head off on overnight backpacking trips, covering anywhere between five and 15 miles per day, depending on their level of experience. Others camp out and climb rocks, paddle canoes or clear trails. Some sample all these activities in smaller, less-intensive bites, meeting up for lawn games, campfires and s’mores back at the dorms at night. And yet another cohort wanders nearby trails with tools for drawing, sculpting, writing and reading inspired by nature. The activities are led by experienced students who share lessons about life at and around Williams.

Charlotte Jones ’22 says she had done just a little hiking and canoeing before coming to Williams from her hometown in Clinton, N.Y. Her first-year WOOLF trip led her to join WOC’s student board and become a WOOLF director her senior year. A physics major, she now works as a laser engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and continues to get outside by running and walking with friends in nature preserves.

Through WOC, Jones says she came to love snowshoeing. “There’s something really special about being bundled up undera quiet canopy of snow,” she says. “You have to slow down and enjoy the world as it is.”

Amir Jeudy ’26 says he wasn’t interested in the outdoors growing up in Huntington, N.Y. He joined a WOOLF trip during orientation and now enjoys hiking and playing Ultimate Frisbee in addition to working in WOC’s equipment room. “My career aspiration is somewhere in climate policy,” he says. “I’m not exactly sure of the path I’ll take, but I’m sure it will involve outdoor activities to some capacity.”

Even students who select a different orientation experience—Williams also offers programs for varsity athletes playing fall sports and for first-years interested in the arts, social justice or community service—will encounter WOC in other ways.

The club hosts Mountain Day in October and Winter Carnival in February. WOC also offers a variety of physical education classes that students can take for academic credit.

“The college, as a liberal arts institution, believes that physical education is an integral part of one’s learning,” says Carolyn Miles, who oversees physical education classes as associate athletic director for student-athlete services. “So: mind and body together, thinking about the individual in a holistic sense.

“The Outing Club does a really good job of bringing opportunities to our students at all levels,” she adds. “Our philosophy is: How do we help you find the thing that you feel like you can do for the long term?”

Three students piled into an orange plastic sled.
Katie Maier ’26, Emerald Dar ’25 and Yaroslava Yashchuck ’26

Widening the Tent

WOC’s student board meets weekly to answer that very question. The students focus on community building, accessibility and inclusion as they plan out programming and classes to attract a wide swath of students.

In 2022, the board voted to eliminate the club’s $10 membership fee, citing it as a financial impediment. Now, students need only fill out a form to join the organization, which has reached 750 members. Nearly all of WOC’s programming is free, and students can borrow equipment at no cost. Financial aid is available for the few activities with fees.

The types of activities, too, are becoming more inclusive. In addition to clover-gathering, this year WOC offered apple picking, slack-lining, toffee-making in the snow and visits to a stable to pet horses in addition to the usual outdoor programs the board promotes in its weekly newsletter.

The focus on inclusion and accessibility is no surprise, says Ben Oliver, who became director of WOC this year, when longtime director Scott Lewis announced his retirement after nearly 40 years of service. Lewis and Dave Ackerson, who is retiring as assistant director after 12 years, remained on staff through the end of the spring semester.

Oliver, who worked at the Sierra Club and was Colgate University’s Outing Club director, calls Williams’ board “notably diverse.”

Board member Nasida Meher ’25 says she didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors as a child growing up in New York City. As a first-year, she joined a sunrise hike that kindled a passion to “get more involved in bringing the larger Williams community to get outside.”

Along with some peers, she organized a hike on Mount Prospect for women of color. “I was swamped with work and dreading going on the three-plus-hour hike,” she recalls. “Ultimately, the hike was breathtaking, and I still remember all the beautiful colors and smells from that day.”

WOC also organized a downhill ski outing to Jiminy Peak this past winter for members of the Minority Coalition, hoping to reach traditionally underrepresented students. Oliver recalls hearing from a participant afterward who told him, “This was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. Is there any way you can help me go again?”

Three students hiking along a trail
Abraham Paik ’25, Aidan Tartarelli ’27 and Amir Jeudy ’26

Carabiners and Camp Stoves

Having access to an array of gear—much of which WOC members can borrow for free—helps novice and expert students alike get involved and stay involved in outdoor activities at Williams.

On a spring afternoon, Maddy Andersen ’25 takes visitors through the equipment room, where she works. Located on the lower level of the Paresky Center, it’s packed with neatly organized racks containing hiking boots, winter coats and rainproof jackets of all sizes. One wall holds dozens of climbing harnesses, helmets and ropes. Another displays snowshoes and microspikes. There are socks, hats, coats, gloves and sweaters along with tents, cookstoves and sleeping bags. WOC even lends out Frisbees, bug spray, soccer balls and hula hoops. WOC has a 12-passenger van to transport people to and from activities and manages Dorland Cabin and a lean-to in Hopkins Memorial Forest for overnight stays.

Andersen grew up in Brooklyn and often hiked with her family. At Williams, she continues to hike and learned how to snowshoe with WOC. An art major, she says she appreciates the dependable and somewhat surprising ways nature can foster well-being. Pausing by a bin of art supplies in the equipment room, she recalls a short walk to a waterfall led by a friend, who broke out materials for people to paint, draw or doodle. “It was so relaxing,” Andersen says. “We do activities like that a lot.”

Some of the equipment, like a kayak or telemark skis, can’t be borrowed without training. But students can learn how to use the gear during the many demonstrations run by the club or through one of several physical education courses taught by WOC each academic quarter. Over the course of six weeks, student leaders introduce their peers to hiking, canoeing, snowshoeing, bouldering and climbing. WOC maintains a bouldering barn at the corner of Walden and Hoxsey streets and a climbing wall that will have a home once the new Multipurpose Recreation Center opens, replacing Towne Field House. WOC staff have also taught physical education courses on telemark skiing and intermediate whitewater kayaking.

Abraham Paik ’25, a music and history major and Eagle Scout from Cleveland, Ohio, is no stranger to the equipment room, borrowing gear for camping and hiking. Drawn to Williams by its Berkshires location, he participated in WOOLF and took every sunrise hike this past fall and spring. As a sophomore, he brought his guitar on a spring break trip with the club to the Grand Canyon. Says Paik, who plans to hike 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia after graduation, “I love mixing my passions with the outdoors and music.”

Student reclines in a red kayak against a blue tarp that simulates a lake
Mawusi Sefogbe ’27

Cider Donuts and Connection

WOC wants to nurture that lifelong passion for the outdoors, whether a student comes to campus with an extensive background or their first experience is the campus-wide celebration of Mountain Day.

Starting as early as mid-September, the campus buzzes with speculation on which Friday in October Williams’ president will cancel classes and declare Mountain Day. The tradition has expanded from a single trek up Mount Greylock to a full day of festivities, including an all-campus picnic, yoga and live music and dance performances.

WOC members lead multiple hikes for all levels and abilities, usually culminating with cider donuts and songs—including a rousing rendition of “The Mountains”—atop Stone Hill and Stony Ledge. Road construction last fall shifted the location to Haley Farm meadow, which has enough spaces for buses, bringing record numbers of people to the event.

Lea Obermüller ’24, a sociology and Spanish major with a concentration in global studies, says she has loved helping out during Mountain Day. A native of Munich, Germany, she grew up hiking and skiing in the Alps and spent her first semester at Williams attending classes remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Because it was safer to be outside, the hikes held during her second semester were a “phenomenal outlet,” says Obermüller, who also teaches alpine skiing and leads sunrise hikes. “I love the epic sunrise hike in the spring. It’s like you wake up with a forest that comes back from winter with all its fresh green shades and smells of wild garlic and trillium coming out in all its colors.”

When the pandemic restricted campus activities, WOC and the physical education department continued its winter ski programs with a gift from Felix Grossman ’56, taking students, some of whom had never seen snow before, to Jiminy Peak almost daily for four weeks. It was a chance to leave their rooms, stay healthy and engage with one another socially.

That sense of connection continues to be important at a time when people are often distracted by their smartphones. “Students are missing so many opportunities to get to know somebody,” Lewis says. Adds Miles, “It’s really hard to be on a hike and scrolling your socials. You can’t play a game of pickleball while you’re on your phone. And that, in turn, allows you to talk to the people who are next to you.”

Anyone who checks Williams’ social media on Mountain Day can see the lifelong impact WOC can have. Alums the world over participate from afar, individually and in groups, tagging the college in their photographs.

While it’s heartening, it’s no surprise, says Lewis, who has celebrated 32 years of Mountain Days. “When you’re outdoors, you’re giving yourself a gift,” he says. “Just be present, and take in not only your surroundings but the people around you.”

 

Top photo: Maddy Andersen ’25 and Fiona Seibert ’24

portrait of Kris Qua standing between two bright spotlights
Kris Qua is a photographer based in Albany, N.Y., who has more than 20 years’ experience working with clients in education, health care, sports and beyond.