Helping others out(side)
Even though he grew up in Tacoma, Washington, in close proximity to nature, Yikhwan Dillard ’09 did not spend much time outdoors.
One reason, he says, has to do with demographics. Hiking and other outdoor recreational activities are overwhelmingly white, upper-class activities in the U.S.
As an Asian-American in a low-income neighborhood, his summertime activities involved basketball at the Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA rather than camping trips to the North Cascades or hikes around Mount Rainier.
Now, he oversees Seattle Pacific’s Outdoor Recreation Program, where he makes it his mission to ensure that students coming from similar backgrounds have an easier time getting outside. The program provides students with rental gear and outdoor opportunities.
Dillard didn’t start hiking until he returned to the Seattle area after studying for a master’s degree in education at Taylor University in Indiana.
“People kept asking me, ‘Isn’t it beautiful in Washington?’ and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know — I think it is,’” Dillard says. “So I told myself, whenever I went back to Seattle, I was going to go on hikes.”
One of the first hikes he distinctly remembers was with a group of resident advisors from SPU soon after he returned from Indiana. “It was horrible, actually,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone seemed like they had grown up in the outdoors, and I just didn’t know what I was doing.”
It didn’t take many hikes, though, before he grew to love the outdoors. By the summer of 2015, he was even traveling to hike abroad. He went on mountain hikes in Norway and the Swiss Alps, and met up with his mother in Korea, where she is part of a hiking club.
He soon realized he wanted to help other students have these experiences, too.
“In the past few years I realized, ‘Holy smokes, there are people like me missing out on this,’ and it feels unfair,” he said. “I decided if there was ever an opportunity where I could cross over and create opportunities for students to do this, I would.”
He’s already creating those opportunities. Just months into his new job, he oversaw a hike up Rattlesnake Ledge for students in SPU’s Early Connections program. The program includes first-generation college students, students whose ethnic backgrounds are underrepresented in higher education, and students from ethnically diverse neighborhoods and schools.
The Outdoor Recreation Program also hosted its first camping trip to Mount Rainier National Park, and saved a few spots for students who couldn’t pay the fees but wanted to join.
Seventy percent of all 2016 participants in outdoor sports like running, fishing, cycling, camping, and hiking were white, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2017 outdoor recreation report. The 2016 Nature of Americans study found that interest in hiking is linked to income: 25 percent of adults who make less than $15,000 annually are very interested in hiking, compared to more than 50 percent of respondents with an income of $250,000 or higher.
Practically speaking, lower-income school districts have fewer resources to provide sports and other outdoor extracurricular opportunities for their students, Dillard said. In addition, those neighborhoods are likely to have fewer public recreation facilities, including parks and swimming pools, per capita. That means by the time students get to college, there is a dramatic divide between those who have accessed the outdoors and those who have not.
Dillard’s role is new, but Whitney Broetje, director of the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership, says it is crucial for Seattle Pacific’s future.
“The outdoors have been and continue to be an opportunity for the elite. If you are not raised in an ‘outdoorsy family,’ there is a lot of fear and many roadblocks to getting outside on your own,” she says. “Positions like Yikhwan’s allow us to provide these opportunities for a much broader range of students to have opportunities in college that they might not get anywhere else.”