Learning to Lead — One Hike, Rapid, and Cave at a Time

on February 13 | in Featured | by

Hollins women have been learning leadership skills through outdoor adventure since the Hollins Outdoor Program began nearly four decades ago.

By Morgan Blalock ’16

Photo by David Reep

Photo by David Reep

“Before college, my outdoor experience consisted of literally running around barefoot in the woods as a kid in rural Virginia,” says Samantha Hopkins ’16. How did Hopkins satisfy her barefoot-in-the-woods spirit at Hollins? She joined the Hollins Outdoors Program (HOP). “Despite incredulous looks from my friends and family back home, doing a HOP trip was the best decision I have ever made because my perspective on life has changed. I want to keep trying new things, improving my leadership, and living in the moment.”

HOP is an integral part of Hollins’ adventurous essence. The lineup of activities includes downriver racing, bouldering, trail hikes, bike rides, and much more. Since its founding in 1977, HOP has also helped students become leaders, discovering their potential—and their courage—on a climbing trip, while running rapids, or dealing with the darkness of a cave. In fact, forming leaders is something HOP does best: The women who leave the program are changed for the better, going on to do such things as becoming resident assistants on HOP Hall in West, receiving their outdoor leadership certificates, or helping run the Wilderness Orientation Program each summer for new students.

Krystina Robinson

Krystina Hall Robinson ’10 Photo by Alvin Swilley

Krystina Hall Robinson ’10, a devoted outdoor program participant during her time at Hollins, says, “HOP definitely offered the opportunity to learn about wilderness and adventure skills, and it naturally evoked conversations surrounding understanding and evaluating group dynamics. You tend to find yourself in certain situations in which teamwork is essential, and you learn a lot about yourself and how you interact with others in a multitude of situations. Learning and understanding how to be a team player, understanding others, and knowing when to step up definitely played a role in how I participated in various organizations at Hollins.”

Robinson completed a B.F.A. and post-baccalaureate certificate in dance and a Hollins Outdoor Leadership Certificate. After spending time as a unit manager at a Girl Scouts of America summer camp, where she assisted young women at outdoor adventure camps, she now works at Norfolk State University as a program coordinator for the Office of Leadership and Student Engagement. Robinson says that her time in HOP and the skills she learned in the program influence her daily life in her current job, especially in teambuilding exercises and workshops.

Perhaps just as important, Hollins and HOP allowed her to “explore and break stereotypes, not only for my gender but for my race as well. Being a black female and participating in adventure sports and activities is a rare occurrence. It is a double minority, but I am confident in my abilities, and it brings me joy to know I can provide some of the opportunities that were afforded to me to students and staff at a historically black university.”

Kaila Thorn

Kaila Thorn ’11 Photo by Olivia Body ’08

Kaila Thorn ’11, a double major in environmental studies and international studies, says that HOP helped her channel her passion for the outdoors. Her HOP experience, combined with training through the Batten Leadership Institute, helped her become a more active listener, a better leader, and a braver individual. HOP also exposed her to parts of nature that, as a Florida native, she had never seen. “I didn’t understand what white water was,” she says, but by the end of her time at Hollins she was on the downriver racing team and had, with Robinson, pushed for new boats for the team.

Thorn, who now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, has since graduation worked as an environmental educator, raft adventure guide in West Virginia, and backpacking trip guide. She has led wilderness outings for autistic and learning-disabled children and hopes to pursue a graduate program that blends environmental studies and special needs education at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the HOP curriculum for Thorn was that “you can literally climb a wall and see your progress.” A student who can scale only the bottom part of the wall in autumn can, with the help and support of her peers and Jon Guy Owens, the program’s director, make it to the top by spring. This visible progress erases any doubt a student might have about her abilities; she can see herself making it up the wall, hand over hand, foot over foot.

In fact, HOP’s tight-knit community of women continually challenge one another to try new things, in a context of unconditional support. “If you want to learn how to paddle a kayak or write a thesis, you can,” says sociology major Devon Dovgan ’16. “Someone will be there rooting for your success.”

Samantha Hopkins

Samantha Hopkins ’16

For Samantha Hopkins, “HOP expanded my comfort zone and grew my confidence by leaps and bounds. Confidence is something I have always struggled with and continue to struggle with to this day. Without HOP, I would not have felt I could be the president of the Outdoor Athletes Club.” Hopkins and Dovgan were coleaders of last summer’s Wilderness Orientation Program for new students, a five-day outdoor adventure that involved, among other activities, maneuvering a high ropes course and canoeing down the James River.

Hopkins, an international studies major, says that Hollins taught her that leaders “communicate with and listen to people, inspire and provide direction and focus to the group, and bring both rationality and empathy and passion and emotion to the people they are leading.” She still holds on to the part of herself that used to run through the Virginia backwoods, but now she also can boulder, race downriver, and climb.

Morgan Blalock, from Newport News, Virginia, is a double major in English (with a concentration in creative writing) and classical studies. She is the editor of Cargoes and a member of the Academic Policy Board. She served as the student success leader in the fall 2014 first-year seminar taught by Professor of History Joe Leedom.


The lowdown on downriver racing

Jon Guy Owens

Jon Guy Owens

If you’d been at the first downriver racing competition Hollins students competed in, you would never have predicted the success the team has enjoyed in the past several years. “They got beat up so bad,” says HOP Director Jon Guy Owens. “But they got so wrapped up in it, they were determined to get better.”

In fact, that first competition was a last-minute detour from Owens’s original plan to take a group of students rock climbing and canoeing. “Thorpe Moeckel [professor of English] sent me a flier promoting the ACA Collegiate Race Series that was happening that weekend. The students thought it would be fun because they thought there would be boys there.”

Even though the Hollins team was outmatched then, their persistence ever since has yielded impressive results. “The women who were there at the beginning won the Virginia state race in both divisions [canoeing and kayaking] by the time they graduated,” says Owens. “There has always been a full team that has traveled to every race since the first one in the fall of 2009.  We are the only team that can say that.”

In addition to their competitive spirit, the team’s success hinges on “an amazing fleet of boats and equipment that help students compete at a higher level,” says Owens. “Most important, the area we live in gives us access to paddling all year long. From the James River, which is only 20 minutes away, to Carvins Cove, in our backyard, we always have a place to get on the water.”

Devon Dovgan

Devon Dovgan ’16 at last fall’s ACA Collegiate Race in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where the Hollins team placed second. Photo by David Reep

Racing to the finish

  • October 2011: First place, ACA Collegiate Race Series Virginia Championship. Mia McDonald ’12 and Tina DelPup ’12, who had competed in Hollins’ first competition in 2009, won the gold medal for tandem canoeing.
  • April 2014: Third place, ACA Collegiate Race Series National Championships.
  • November 2014: Second place, Women’s Championship competition, ACA Collegiate Race Series National Championships.

What is downriver racing?

The downriver racing series is a team event in which a group of paddlers compete in a series of individual classes that are two- to two-and-a-half-mile sprints down an introductory to moderately difficult white-water river. The classes consist of individual kayak and canoe, as well as tandem canoe categories. New in the last year is a flat-water stand-up paddleboard category, or SUP.


Photo by David Reep

Terms and competition

  • Kayak: A fully enclosed boat, in which you sit flat with legs out in front and paddle with a double-bladed paddle. Competitors paddle solo in the race series.
  • Canoe: An open-topped boat in which you sit on a saddle or on your knees and paddle with a single-bladed paddle.  Competitors paddle solo or tandem.
  • SUP: Stand-up paddleboard. Competitors paddle standing up.

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