Posted on August 06, 2021 by Abby May
One of the most unique and treasured characteristics about Sweet Briar are the scenic Virginia fields, forests and rolling hills that surround its historic campus. Experiencing all that the land has to offer and teach us is an intrinsic part of Sweet Briar. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that many alumnae have fond memories of the College’s outdoor program and all the adventures it provided both on and off campus. (Did you just say SWEEBOP in your head? Because we did.) In 1979, the president of the College, Harold B. Whiteman, Jr., received a $5,000 grant from Procter & Gamble to be used for a “new and innovative” program. Just like that, the outdoor program was born. With the help of Lori Adam, the program’s first director, SWEEBOP was introduced to campus life.
Today, Mikel Mayo-Pitts is at the helm of the outdoor program. Not long after he arrived in early 2020, Mikel suddenly found himself having to navigate ways to keep the excitement and participation growing even through the pandemic. Fortunately, that wasn’t too difficult with a campus that has so many accessible and diverse outdoor spaces.
Mikel is pretty familiar with the countryside near Sweet Briar. His family moved to rural Fluvanna County, just to the southeast of Charlottesville, just before he went into middle school. His new home exposed him to the countryside more than he had ever been before. His family always had a great appreciation for the outdoors, and they found themselves spending even more time hiking and camping. These experiences led Mikel to search for a college degree program that would teach him the important aspects of outdoor knowledge needed for backpacking, hiking, basic safety and more. After graduating from Radford University with a degree in outdoor recreation, he worked for their outdoor program where he honed the skills he needed to lead people on outdoor excursions.
Before Mikel arrived at Sweet Briar, the beloved program was being run by interested students and a small group of student-staff. They kept the program thriving, and they did it with dedication. “We were all really close, and it was a lot of extra work,” says Weatherly Ryder ’22. “We couldn’t always go on the trips we wanted, so we did the best we could. We often went to Rise Up climbing in Lynchburg and utilized our beautiful campus. We worked together to make sure we still had something to offer the students.”
Mikel has been thrilled to work directly with these excited, passionate students and help to make the outdoor program inclusive of people with any level of interest or experience. “My favorite thing so far has definitely been working with the student leaders, growing the student staff, and training and working with them,” says Mikel.
The program allows students to experience the outdoors in many different ways and at various levels. “There are a vast number of things that make Sweet Briar and the outdoor program unique, but I think the biggest one is the inclusivity,” says Renee Taylor ’24. “There is something here on campus for everyone, whether it’s clubs, athletics or the outdoor program.” “A very prominent part of my childhood was spent with a wilderness training program in Vermont called Coyote’s Path,” says Sita Moses ’23. “This is where my love for the outdoors developed beyond being just a kid in the woods. I was ecstatic to find that Sweet Briar had its own outdoor program, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I completed the application process to become an apprentice and, in turn, a leader in time for the start of my sophomore year.”
“There’s a bit of a running joke that I am the sunrise hike person,” says Sita. “Though initially not the most enticing thing, getting up to welcome the sun is my favorite trip we lead. Usually, we start these journeys off a little groggy and sleepy — perhaps even resentful of our past selves who signed up — but to watch the first rays of sunlight turn the world to gold before our eyes with a warm cup in hand (we bring a stove and pot for hot drinks) is incredible. On the return, everyone’s a little warmer, awake and there is still the whole day ahead!”
The staff plays an important role in helping plan and orchestrate activities and encouraging students to participate. They also learn the basics of outdoors training, backpacking and camping so that they can be helpful influencers and teachers to those that participate in any of the activities or excursions.
“My favorite memory so far has been the staff training trip to Bozoo, W.Va. We went over the basics of backpacking and camping and had an introduction to climbing, ropes systems and anchor systems,” says Mikel.
Despite the pandemic, the outdoor program has been able to provide many opportunities for students to escape for a little bit. They had a full list of trips planned, but Mikel and the students knew they were going to be limited to campus, so they kept trips at a beginner level for students who might not be used to certain types of outdoor activities or excursions. Their adventures have consisted of hikes with hot chocolate, canoeing and kayaking on the lake, and tree climbing, which was added this spring.
Mikel had no problem finding things to do thanks to Sweet Briar’s distinctive characteristics. “I always love paddleboarding on our lakes,” says Weatherly. “I like night hikes as well. Seeing the stars on a clear night is super special,” she remarks.
Mikel says, “Our program is an incredible opportunity for building leadership skills. For anyone joining in on the activities, it’s a community to connect people and nature. It’s a nice escape.”
“The Sweet Briar Outdoor Program is brought to life by the students who are in it,” says Sita. “Mikel has been an excellent leader for all of us and aids us in pursuing our own interests and ideas while connecting them back to what we can do for students at Sweet Briar. Because of this, I think our program is constantly evolving and bettering itself, and in doing so, it defies stagnancy.”
Mikel plans to grow the program by adding a variety of trips and opportunities for student involvement. “I want to build a cohesive program around the students who are currently involved and want to take trips, plus include new students, as well,” he says.
He also hopes to one day bring back an annual week-long expedition, giving outdoor enthusiasts an opportunity to do something out of their comfort zone. At one time, Sweet Briar’s outdoor program provided the opportunity for students to attend Outdoor Women Leadership training. Students would take extended trips filled with in-depth outdoor camping opportunities. “I am hoping to resume the practice of expedition-length training for student leaders. In the past, they have primarily been backpacking trips somewhere in the surrounding states,” says Mikel. “That is probably how it will be when I first start it back up, as well, however, I want to work towards yearly expeditions to other parts of the country that are a bit less familiar,” he says.
“This program has helped me become a leader that I never thought I’d be,” says Weatherly. “Putting students in leadership positions through the outdoors and the amazing nature around us is one of the best things I’ve experienced here at Sweet Briar. I’ve found my voice and spot on campus through the outdoor program.”