Georgia Tech’s Outdoor Recreation (ORGT) program, a part of Campus Recreation, has been a significant part of the campus experience for many Yellow Jackets since its founding in October 1970. This month, the program turns 50 and ORGT continues to provide students with experiences that foster self-awareness and self-confidence, encourage leadership skills, contribute to healthy lifestyles, create great memories, and promote a host of competencies that complement a Georgia Tech degree.
In the last decade alone, ORGT has engaged 14,000 students on 1,400 regional adventures and filled 1,200 spaces on 116 student-led expeditions to 22 countries. ORGT expeditions have even taken students to each of the seven continents.
In 1970, Jay Wickson, Student Center recreation coordinator and an outdoor enthusiast, purchased a small amount of outdoor gear and provided a closet in which to store it. Shortly thereafter, Wickson left Georgia Tech and responsibility for that closet full of gear and for outdoor activities was transferred to Miller Templeton, assistant dean of students.
In the early days, there was little to suggest that the cache of gear in the Student Center would be the start of something big. Since then, however, ORGT has become one of the premier campus outdoor programs in the nation. Despite lacking a name, the fledgling organization grew and steadily attracted more and more committed students, many of whom happily signed on as long-term volunteers and enthusiastically trained as trip leaders.
Unaware of copyright law and the existing program in the United Kingdom called “Outward Bound,” students adopted the name Outward Bound Georgia Tech (OBGT). Soon after labeling their equipment with the new acronym, OBGT, the organization received a “cease and desist” letter from Outward Bound International, demanding they stop using the name. The students had to come up with another name and unfortunately, every piece of equipment had been labeled OBGT. Being adept at problem-solving, they grabbed steel wool scouring pads, scrubbed off the bottom of the letter “B” which left an “R” where the “B” had been. OBGT became ORGT and Outward Bound Georgia Tech became Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech.
From that point forward, ORGT continued to thrive as a student favorite for weekend trips and weekly kayaking roll schools, first in the Student Activities Center pool, and later in the Campus Recreation Center (CRC) pool.
Under Templeton’s direction, ORGT adopted what they called the “SST” model. It established the three priorities of Safety, Structure, and Training as foundations for the organization. Volunteer leaders embraced these pillars and continued to build the organization, engage more students, and to push boundaries in the field. The SST model made a splash with campus programs when presented at several national conferences in subsequent years.
In the late 1970s, as ORGT grew quickly, only Georgia Tech staff could drive Institute vehicles. In order to serve more students, volunteer trip leaders needed to be able to drive Institute vehicles. Students worked with Templeton to submit a formal proposal to the state-level risk manager, which was not only rejected but also accompanied by an order to stop “inherently dangerous” outdoor activities. ORGT offerings ground to a halt.
The ORGT students took their case to Tech President Joseph Pettit who sided with them, laying out the case for why outdoor recreation was vital for students. Not only were students granted permission to drive Institute vehicles, but the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents, impressed with the scope and impact of the outdoor program at Georgia Tech, encouraged the expansion of activities like those offered through ORGT.
Through the years, it became clear that being an ORGT volunteer was a powerful complement to a Georgia Tech education. Getting off campus and immersing in the out of doors had health benefits for participants, too. The language of the organization changed from solely being about outdoor activities to being about building leadership-related skills like coaching, teaching, managing risk, leading effectively, planning and preparation, and problem-solving.
ORGT has grown through the years and continues to offer formative experiences for Tech students. Even during a global pandemic, ORGT volunteers are busy training to lead their next adventures in adventure sports — caving, climbing, cascading, backpacking, sea kayaking, whitewater kayaking, bike-packing, and mountain biking. ORGT recently added a ninth sport, Mindfulness Outdoors, which engages students in the outdoors in a unique and restorative manner. ORGT has fully embraced its role in well-being, healthy lifestyles, and promoting positive mental health on campus.
Fifty years after its founding, ORGT continues to profoundly impact students. While travels in the last decade have taken students around the globe, and outdoor recreation experiences impacted 5,000 individuals in the year before Covid-19, ORGT’s success is the product of 50 years’ worth of effort and generosity by thousands of student volunteers and alumni who have invested significantly in creating healthy opportunities for other Tech students.
These excursions – paddling, hiking, climbing, caving -- add value to the Tech experiences of so many.
ORGT currently rents camping gear, is leading self-directed day and overnight adventures, operate the CRC climbing wall, and the GT Leadership Challenge Course, and offers a variety of specialty adventures. Visit crc.gatech.edu to learn more.
This month, Campus Recreation recognizes generations of ORGT volunteers for inspiring others, for working tirelessly to plan and manage trips, and for making campus life at Tech just a little richer. Current ORGT volunteers and participants stand on the achievements and contributions of the earliest student volunteers.
Miller Templeton can name a thousand “giants” from the early days: Bobby Gaar (ME c.1972), David Flanagan (IE c.1976), Bruce Cox (Architecture c.1972), and Clint Thompson (ME c.76).
David Knobbe, current assistant director of Outdoor Recreation at the CRC, recognizes John Traendly (ME ’68), Ahsan Khan (AE ‘14), Austin Ward (ECE ’13), Sid Agarwal (AE ’13), Erin Hayward (Ph.D. NE ‘12), Rob Hayward (Ph.D. NE ‘12), Rebecca Morrissey (Bio ‘18), Shawn Gregory (Ph.D. MS In progress), and Mark Jones (EE Ph.D. ’94). Thousands more have contributed to ORGT over the last fifty years in both big and small ways.
John Traendly (ME ’68) still consistently out-paddles students a quarter of his age – every single one of them! Since 2012, he has led more than 100 sea kayaking and stand up paddleboarding day trips, overnights, and expeditions with ORGT. Not only is John likely the most prolific ORGT trip leader of all time, but we’re still waiting for the student who can match his prowess.
David Flanagan (IE ’76) was one of the original ORGT students and established an endowment early in the 2000’s supporting ORGT’s pursuit of “the extraordinary.” Since then, every individual who has participated in an ORGT-led expedition to places like Alaska, Montana, Iceland, Corsica, Croatia, Nepal, Ecuador, and one-hundred other locations, in part owes part of their experience to David Flanagan. Thanks to David’s investment and vision, over 1,200 students have caught glimpses of other ways of living both domestically and abroad that chip away at narrow-mindedness and build better leaders.
Clint Thompson (ME’76) continues to support culture-building efforts. Not only does he make quarterly awards dinners possible for current “ORGTeers,” but he attends and sometimes tells stories at these important events.
Michael Edwards, current senior director of the CRC, has been an important advocate for and supporter of ORGT. As early as 1994, when part of Capital Planning and Space Management at Tech, Edwards worked with students to build ORGT’s first climbing wall in the O’Keefe Gym. In 2010, he spurred an explosive expansion when he asked full-time ORGT staff David Knobbe and Matt Marcus two questions — “If what you do is so important to health and well-being, why don’t we do more of it?” and “What’s stopping us from leading expeditions on all seven continents in the next seven years?” By 2018, ORGT was able to claim to have visited all seven continents in seven years and to have led over 100 one to two-week expeditions. In 2019 alone, ORGT had 243 active volunteers and over 180 day and weekend trips engaging almost 2,000 students.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the creation, sustainability, and future of ORGT. Here's to fifty more years.