Elon Connected: Elon Outdoors offers Grace Contino ’22 a chance to ‘play outside’

This is the next profile in "Elon Connected," a new series that highlights how students are involved with campus organizations at Elon.

How are you Elon Connected? This is the first in a new series that highlights how students are connecting at Elon outside of the classroom.

The university is home to hundreds of organizations that provide nearly limitless ways for students to engage, and Elon Connected shines the light on what these groups mean to the students involved and to the campus community.

Grace Contino ’22 — Elon Outdoors (ELOA)

Hometown: Northport, New York

Major:  Environmental studies with minors in environmental education and Spanish

Grace Contino ’22

How did you get involved in Elon Outdoors?

Right off the bat, when I was a freshman at Elon I got involved with Elon Outdoors. I signed up for several trips both semesters and started to connect with the student staff. I left trips and their weekly s’mores nights always wanting to come back to the atmosphere that they provided which was consistently welcoming, supportive and friendly. My first semester on campus I applied to Campus Recreation and Wellness to work for ELOA but was denied. The fall of my sophomore year I applied again after gaining some more experience and strengthening my leadership skills and was luckily accepted on the team!

How does your student involvement line up with your academic interests?

Given my major in environmental science it’s a beautiful way to see how what I learn in class exists just in my back yard here in North Carolina. I love walking outside and understanding what I’m seeing because I’ve studied certain ecosystems or phenomena in the classroom. I’ve additionally taken courses on environmental policy and so I’ve learned about concepts like public lands and national parks, which our organization benefits from, and regulations that can maintain the quality of the lands which we recreate on. Other courses have opened up conversations about environmental justice, whiteness in the outdoors and more on how racism is ever present in this area.

Those issues are informing the actions I take as a student worker and how I chose to change the perception of who can have access to outdoor spaces.

Grace Contino, top, with friends

… with your social life?

Before I took my first class at Elon, I was a participant on this summer orientation program called Adventures in Leadership (AIL) where I went camping for a week with thirty other incoming freshmen. The people who I connected with in those few short days quickly became my lifelong friends and some are even my roommates today. That experience eased all our transitions into college and I felt an incredibly strong sense of community.

Many of us naturally got more involved in ELOA, first as active participants and then some as student employees too. My community in ELOA is full of the most genuine, loving, easygoing and accepting people I have met. They have really been the foundation of my support system on campus.

… with your career goals?

My career goals have changed a lot but what hasn’t changed is my intention and desire to work with other passionate people, and educate them on all aspects of the environment. Right now I see myself following a path where I’m working outside and facilitating young people to develop a positive relationship with the natural environment, and educating them on the consequences of their actions so they can be motivated to be stewards of the planet working to mitigate climate change.

We, humans, know what we need to do to stop the planet from warming, we just need to do it. In that way I could also see myself pursuing climate policy work to directly implement changes in the system that would lead to progress in helping people who have been impacted by the changing climate.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from 2020, it is to set goals and maintain your standards rather than set a plan because it will never go the exact way you want it to.

Most memorable experience with your organization?

It’s difficult to pick just one, but Elon Outdoors hosted a s’mores event where a local band called Love & Valor came to perform on Lakeside Plaza and it was a blast. So many people came for the good vibes — there’s nothing I love more than live music and a warm fire.

Elevator pitch to someone considering joining?

If you’re looking to get involved in an organization where you will be accepted for who you are and supported in your goals, come play outside with ELOA. I promise you’ll find a strong sense of community, you’ll feel yourself grow in confidence and in your leadership, and you’ll learn a lot even if you’ve never been on a hike before in your life.

What do you think your organization adds to campus life or the broader community?

ELOA is a community that isn’t exclusionary or membership-based like many other campus organizations who have a strong presence on campus. We offer something new and refreshing to students. There is an impression I think some students have that they can only be involved if they have some sort of camping or hiking experience-that is far from the truth!

We host students and staff who sit anywhere on the spectrum of experience in the outdoors. Lately, people are looking for that new opportunity and want a break from the schoolwork grind that can loom over some student’s minds. People walk away from experiences with us with a sense of capability, a new perspective, a sense of peace, and a desire to come back! The outdoors is for everyone, there is no requirement for previous experience or knowledge, everyone can find something they like.

Biggest adjustment for Elon Outdoors in response to the pandemic?

The pandemic has created a unique experience for the work that we do to really shine on Elon’s campus. People are forced to socially distance today, but an outlet for that has been doing more things outside. We have seen an increased interest in all our program areas. Many classes have never met in person and so the challenge course creates an opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to connect in a safe way. The social life on campus has also been forced to adapt now that students can’t gather in large groups, so people are seeking ways to get off campus and go on a hike or bike ride with us.

A few hurdles we’ve had to clear are that we can’t offer overnight trips or leave Alamance County this semester in order to limit exposure to COVID-19 between students. We’ve also had to rethink our weekly s’mores night to limit the number of students around the fire and eating in close proximity to one another. But this allows us to think creatively and offer new opportunities doing things we haven’t before- like Geocaching (an adult friendly scavenger hunt outside). Now that we don’t have any overnight trips planned, we are able to offer twice as many trips in one weekend and reach more participants than before. In this time we are really learning new things and trying to be innovative in how we can better serve the Elon community.

Overall, though, I think more students are learning about what we do as an organization and are looking to get more involved and familiar with the opportunities that we can offer. People want a reason to leave their dorms and apartments now if they’re taking classes online, especially after being quarantined previously this spring. Gathering outside is proven to be safer and I think students are looking for that, as well as just something to do.

What’s your advice to other students about balancing student involvement and your academics?

You probably will sign up for a dozen and a half clubs and organizations at the fall Organization Fair. Don’t worry-you can’t physically be a part of all of them. Pick a few, which means two to four, that really spark your interest and you know you can commit your energy and time to. Then go for it!

See about taking on a leadership role if you want. But you don’t need to say yes to everything. Your cup is only so big and can hold so much. If you think you’ve taken on too much, pour some out to leave room for something else that might come up.

What lies ahead after Elon?

I’m looking to live abroad for about a year. My plans to study abroad didn’t work out as I wanted them to because of the pandemic, but the good news is that traveling doesn’t have to stop just because I’m going to graduate. I’m actually looking into working for the company that offered the abroad program in Panama I was hoping to participate in. It’s a position to work with students as their Student Affairs Manager, helping students get integrated into the greater community, assist them with their studies in ecology, policy, and tourism, and facilitate a connection between the students during their term abroad.

From there, I’ll have to see!

Something most people don’t know about you?

I’m left handed.