Penn State community members are embracing opportunities outdoors and in nature as warmer weather envelopes the region, spring flowers bloom and the snow eases.
Jen Emigh, the director of AURORA: Penn State Outdoor Orientation Programs, said she’s seen the positive impact nature has on the mental health and well-being of students, particularly those who participate in the program’s outdoor services and wilderness expeditions.
Emigh said the AURORA program allows students to “start college feeling refreshed and rejuvenated and hopefully explore a little bit of who they want to be.”
“To really reap the benefits, you have to do it almost every day,” Emigh said. “It has to be a priority in your life. It’s a change that needs to be made, so let’s put ourselves first and [recognizing] that we can take time for ourselves.”
Emigh said people need to set aside time in their schedules for their outdoor activities or interests and reduce the stigma behind taking a break to embrace the world around them.
“It’s okay to take a 10 minute study break and go outside and walk around or just sit under a tree and watch nature because it has so many benefits that allow you to get back inside and study.” being more focused — to have your stress relief, your mood up,” Emigh said.
According to the American Psychological Association, research has found that exposure to “natural environments” increases working memory capacity, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control.
Emigh said there are easy ways to incorporate the outdoors into students’ daily routines, including leisurely strolls, al fresco meals or studying on the lawn.
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For students who can travel off-campus, Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center offers many trails to explore and a boardwalk to walk and observe nature, according to Emigh.
Whenever Emigh takes students on retreats at Shaver’s Creek, she says the students feel “so refreshed and renewed.”
“One thing I like to do in spring is to see if the daffodils are starting to bloom and then just do it [riding] I ride my bike around campus because Penn State has really beautiful flowers that they spend a lot of time on,” Emigh said. “I think it’s really great to cycle around and find these areas.”
If students are unsure of how to start or get more involved in the outdoors, Emigh says they should “start small and make it a bite-sized chunk” rather than an overwhelming effort.
She said people should set personal goals each week, whether it’s enjoying more meals outdoors or taking a break from studying every few hours.
Emigh said students should consider asking their friends to join them in outdoor activities because “a lot of things are better with a friend” and it might help them achieve their goals when they’re first starting out.
Linsey Loraditch, a scholar at Schreyer Honors College, said the time students spend outdoors can play a factor in students’ “headroom” and mental state, especially when it comes to school affairs.
Loraditch (a sophomore) said that a busy academic schedule that limits students’ engagement with nature can affect their view of the world.
“Back then between classes [sessions] is really nice to have and spend outside,” Loraditch said. “It’s important to see that there is something outside of the school classroom.”
As an out-of-town student from Connecticut, Loraditch said the state college’s high pollen count — which is particularly affected by the surrounding farmland — affected her allergies and the associated amount of time she spends outdoors.
Pennsylvania has a history of high pollen counts, with five cities across Pennsylvania rated “worse than average” in the seasonal allergy category, according to a 2021 study by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Pink flowers bloom in the arboretum during its renovation on Friday, August 6, 2021.
Despite bouts with allergies, Loraditch said, she enjoys taking walks around campus without having an “end goal” in mind and exercising outdoors to “get out.” [her] Just head and meditate.”
“It’s nice because you can just walk and see where the road or sidewalk is going,” Loraditch said.
Paige Fenstermacher, a 2021 graduate student in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Management at Penn State, said she’s frequently engaged with nature while living on Penn State’s campus through opportunities that her major and above student programs are available.
“It’s all about knowing what’s available and what interests you and taking the bold step,” says Fenstermacher. “It’s so easy to scroll on TikTok for two hours between classes, but at the end of the day you’ll feel the effects. So a conscious effort is the biggest step.”
Fenstermacher said students need to find their “niche” way of engaging with nature – whether it’s an outdoor club sport or a general education class dedicated to exploring the great outdoors.
“It might sound a bit cliche, but it’s so important to move away from screens and the constant communication they enable,” said Fenstermacher. “[Separation from electronics] can be very nerve wracking but also very therapeutic. Having those moments away encourages creativity, mindfulness and really helps with stress.”
Fenstermacher said the college spends too much time behind computer screens and indoors instead of “balancing college life with attunement to nature.”
“The only time you’re outside is going to your classes or when your teacher lets you take classes outside, which is this huge novel thing, but why does it have to be like that?” said Fenstermacher. “There’s a disconnect between college life, the college curriculum and nature. They are considered separate [entities] a total of.”
When planning courses, Fenstermacher said students should evaluate their curriculum and see where they can fit into nature-based courses.
“You can have everything – education and commitment to nature,” said Fenstermacher. “Don’t take the most basic requirement just because you know it’s going to be the easiest – you won’t learn anything and instead [will be stuck] in this box. there [are] so many courses that can broaden your horizons. You can expand your appreciation for these things.”
She said enrolling in nature-based classes allows for more “structured” outdoor experiences that don’t feel like work or taking classes.
Fenstermacher said students should take advantage of “designated areas on campus that are curated as outdoor wellness spaces” — like the Arboretum at Penn State, where she worked as a kindergarten education and programming intern.
“In theory, you pay for these spaces, so you might as well use them,” says Fenstermacher.
Fenstermacher said students should seek information about the opportunities they are interested in and research online about the activities surrounding the state college.
“Some people don’t feel comfortable doing outdoor activities in nature [because] she [say] they didn’t grow up or really don’t feel worthy of doing these things,” said Fenstermacher. “You don’t have to be a hippie climber, mountaineer, mountain biker or extreme water sports enthusiast [participant]. You don’t have to be one of those types of people to earn outdoor spaces.”
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