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Enjoying the outdoors is for everyone. So why doesn't everyone do it?

As Tony Stafford went through the instructions holding a paddle, Shartrisse Judson kept looking nervously at the Elizabeth River a few feet away.

An Old Dominion University graduate student in education, Judson was about to take her first trip on open water in a self-propelled watercraft, from Whitehurst Beach, at the western edge of the ODU campus.

The outing was part of Paddle-palooza, an effort by ODU's Outdoor Adventure Program to expose first-timers to canoeing and kayaking.

"I've been on cruise ships, I've been on other boats, but I've never done something like this. It'll be me out there paddling," said Judson, 25, who just moved to Norfolk from Woodbridge, Va. "It's just something I've never been exposed to. I'm kind of worried."

Judson looked at the water again. "It's very picturesque. The fun part, I don't know. We'll see."

Luckily, her paddling partner, Stafford, has spent his entire adult life doing outdoor adventure activities around the world. A graduate assistant in the Outdoor Adventure Program, Stafford just started his Ph.D in education in June, after moving to Norfolk following a year in South America.

After a concise lesson on proper paddling technique, Stafford and Judson launched their boat out onto the Elizabeth River. On a perfect, cloudless fall day, they paddled around the placid water, looking out at the giant container ships drifting by on their way to the Port of Norfolk.

Stafford and Judson met in a class called Multicultural University, taught by Gwen Lee-Thomas, assistant professor of educational foundations and leadership in the Darden College of Education.

Given an assignment to find a project that helps promote diversity in a different campus entity, the duo got to talking about how outdoor activities like canoeing and mountain biking are rarely done by minorities.

"I've done outdoor activities in a lot of different places," Stafford said. "It's very rare to see people of underrepresented minorities in the outdoors. We want to try and find out why that is, and hopefully help change that here at ODU."

Judson and Stafford have taken on a semester-long project for their Multicultural University class.

They're going to recruit a group of minority students and give them a crash course in outdoor recreation, starting with a camping trip in a car. Later in the month, the group - which they hope will number 15-20 students, will go on a daylong paddling expedition. Finally, at the end of the month, the hardiest of the students will combine the two activities on an overnight camping trip.

Judson said she was a Girl Scout growing up, so has gone camping and hiking before. But she said many of her friends, also African Americans, have never experienced such things.

"I've heard them say our people don't 'do' things like that. I don't know why it is," she said.

As part of the project, Stafford and Judson will talk with the students before and after their outings, to find out why they haven't participated in the past, how their perceptions may have been changed, and what can be done to attract students like them to participate in the future.

Coordinator Bridget Nemeth said ODU's Outdoor Adventure Program got a major boost when the new Student Recreation Center opened, allowing for a new headquarters and a bunch of new equipment.

Continued growth of the program, however, depends on turning on a diverse, urban student body to the joy of spending time in activities that take them off the beaten path.

"We're trying to show that you don't have to drive to a national park to experience the outdoors, you can do it right here, a block from campus," Nemeth said.

"The students doing things like canoeing and camping for the first time aren't just helping our program grow, they're developing an appreciation for staying active and getting outside.

"Those are things that benefit all of us in the long run."

Back from her paddle, Judson was elated.

"It was actually fun," she said. "I was more afraid of falling in the water than the whole process of the outdoor experience. But Tony was my partner, and he eased my anxieties.

"It was a wonderful experience. I hope that I can have the opportunity for more students from diverse backgrounds to have the same positive experience."

This article was posted on: October 5, 2009

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