Sometimes it’s an afternoon trip to the adventure course on the wooded outskirts of campus. Sometimes it’s a soul-shaking expedition all the way out in the Grand Canyon.
No matter the journey, one walks away from it with a refreshed perspective, new skills, and good memories — par for the course when it comes to Outdoor Leadership Programs with Tim Slusser ’22.
OLP is a convergence of elements Slusser has a passion for: outdoor adventure, learning through experience, environmentalism, and outdoor health and safety. Coming up on his fourth year leading the program, he’s expanded it on multiple fronts and worked to make it more accessible to more students.
“I love wild places, and I was fortunate enough to have experiences growing up that allowed me to go and visit a lot of wild places and do some amazing outdoor things, and I think that was really impactful for my life,” he said.
“It’s really cool to be able to take students and kind of give them some similar experiences and watch them grow.”
On OLP outings, there are two teachers: Slusser and the wilderness itself. Sometimes, he said his role is largely facilitating the experience and debriefing participants.
He said those experiences give students what they need to grow personally — not necessarily what they think they signed up for — and the takeaways vary from student to student.
Slusser’s own outdoor leadership experiences helped him cultivate that perspective, then root it at Lynchburg.
“I’m just trying to use my strengths to give back,” he said.
He started working for Blue Ridge Mountains Council of the Boy Scouts of America as a teenager, leading whitewater canoe trips, caving trips, and high-ropes course sessions.
When he came to Lynchburg in 2017 to study nursing as an Access student, he already had several years as an outdoor guide under his belt and was working a second job in EMS. Volunteering for OLP, then under the leadership of Peter Berry ’14, Slusser helped guide trips and build the program.
OLP had been at the University since 1989, growing from what was initially a program focused on corporate team building. Slusser has recently researched that history in the process of adjusting OLP’s strategic plan.
When Berry left the position in 2018, Slusser said it was the stars aligning, and he jumped on the opportunity to prove himself fit for the role. He said he wanted to continue his predecessor’s work in removing barriers for student access, lowering costs, and providing more chances to get outdoors.
OLP now boasts around 30 trips per semester, and most are $5 or free. Slusser said the program is about balancing the quantity and quality of trips. He’s got a passion for longer, expedition-type trips like the one OLP took to the Grand Canyon this past spring, and prior ones to the Everglades and Big Bend.
Such adventures, along with the shorter and more regular outings, might teach someone resiliency, grit, determination, and how to move beyond their self-imposed limitations.
“There’s a lot of, ‘I can’t do this’ before they try,” he said. “So my job is really to put them in situations where they grow and can prosper and then they can take those situations and apply them to their life broadly — whether that’s hiking in the Grand Canyon or canoeing or camping for the first time. It can be a wide variety of experiences.”
In addition to expanding OLP’s trip offerings, Slusser took his health and safety background and translated it into more specific skill certification courses, like Wilderness Medicine and Swift Water Rescue.
As a whole, he said he’d like to see outdoor recreation and outdoor industries become more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable. With so many nonprofits and businesses in the area operating in the outdoor realm, he’d also like to see Lynchburg as more of a central leader.
“I really would like to see Lynchburg be the hub of outdoors for not just the Lynchburg community, but the Central Virginia area as well,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of outdoor resources.”