Wako Soma ’23 promotes inclusivity as student leader in Whitman’s Outdoor Program.

On her first Outdoor Program (OP) trip—a multiday whitewater rafting excursion friends talked her into in the fall of her first year at Whitman—Wako Soma felt weighed down both physically and emotionally by the overstuffed backpack she brought along. Packed with clothes poorly suited to the adventure, the pack served as a reminder of her lack of familiarity with “outdoorsy” culture and she carried the added burden of feeling out of place.

Growing up in Hawaii and California, Soma had what she now describes as a not-very-outdoorsy childhood. Although she remembers occasional camping trips and hikes, outdoor recreation wasn’t a big part of her life.

“I didn’t know that rafting was a sport, or even climbing, so it was really new to me coming to Whitman,” says Soma, who is now a junior majoring in psychology.

Arriving at Whitman she found that outdoor recreation was a go-to social opportunity and outlet for many of her new friends. Soma was open to trying new things—so despite the lack of confidence she felt on that first outing, she decided to explore another popular OP activity: climbing.

“Because all of my closest friends were involved with the climbing team, I started to join them in their practices,” says Soma. 

Yet even as she found her footing on the climbing wall, she still felt like she was out of step in the greater outdoor recreation community. That’s when she decided to do something about it—for herself and for others like her.

“I didn’t want other students who were new to the outdoor culture to feel invisible or incompetent and find themselves in the same unfortunate situation I was in,” says Soma.

With that in mind, she had conversations with others about how to help, including Stuart Chapin, assistant director of outdoor programs, who eventually hired her as one of the OP outreach coordinators.

Reaching Out & Guiding the Way

In her role, Soma schedules meetings with the leaders of affinity groups, such as the Men of Color Association, to gauge what resources they need. This could look like organizing affinity group-dedicated events or sharing information on OP opportunities and upcoming trips.

During the Spring 2021 semester, Soma played an active role in kickstarting the Whitman BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) Outdoors Club and in organizing climbing wall sessions for members to ensure they felt welcomed. She feels it’s especially important to offer spaces where curious students can talk about their worries and frustrations.

In the cultural awareness training she offers her team members, Soma stresses creating an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions too. When she talks to new OP hires about how to be more inclusive and welcoming, she frequently shares the motto she uses in her own outreach efforts: “This experience is for you.”

“There’s a difference between that wording and saying ‘everyone is welcome,’” Soma says. “The phrase ‘everyone is welcome’ seems almost performative, whereas ‘this experience is for you’ invites people in.”

Recently, Soma’s inclusivity practice in the OP has included researching ways in which local Indigenous history and location names can be integrated into materials and programming.

Learning from Experience

Empathy informs Soma’s approach to her OP outreach work on every level. It helps her create ways to make people feel more comfortable about joining OP programs—and also to accept that not everyone will be interested. 

Being part of the outreach team enables me to help create a more inclusive and welcoming outdoors community for all

“I've been questioning the assumption that everyone wants to be outdoors. I hope my work with the OP can provide fun and comfortable opportunities for newcomers to give outdoor recreation a try by allowing them to decide for themselves if they want to be a part of it.”

Working as a student outreach coordinator has led to many personal lessons, Soma says. “One that sticks out to me is learning to be OK with feeling uncomfortable sometimes ... I have to really put myself out there.”

Looking forward, Soma says she hopes to take Whitman’s for-credit Outdoor Leadership and/or Climbing Wall Instructor course, if her schedule allows. Eventually, she’d like to lead her own multiday OP trip, like the one that first introduced her to outdoor programs at the beginning of her first year. This time, she’ll be equipped with the skills and experience to help everyone feel they belong—not to mention a lighter backpack.