I was ecstatic when I heard about A Place Beyond and their mission to unite college students learning remotely into an intentional community in nature. As a lover of the outdoors who was unable to return to my physical college campus and as someone who struggled immensely with finishing last spring semester remotely after the pandemic intensified in the United States, the concept of APB seemed like a perfect fit for me. I eagerly browsed the APB website and began dreaming of a fall semester filled with hiking, camping, and making new friends all while living in a forest.
Then I looked at the “Team” tab and saw mostly white people. The promotional materials? Also white people. My bubble burst, and I was pulled back into reality. I thought about how APB’s cohort would likely be predominantly white and wealthy enough to afford the price tag. Would I feel safe? Would I feel comfortable? Then I thought, scratch all of that, the real question is, would I be able to afford it? While I decided I had nothing to lose by applying, I sent in my application mostly expecting to be told there wasn’t enough aid, and then that would be that.
My heart nearly burst with excitement once more when I learned I was accepted and would receive sufficient aid to attend, but then all the previous questions I’d put off for later resurfaced while discussing my fall plans with my family. “Me preocupa,” my mom said. “Estas segura? Me da miedo que te hagan algo.” [It worries me. Are you sure? I’m scared they’ll do something to you.] I assured her that everything would be fine, but took great care to recruit several of my friends into applying. The optimist in me really, really wanted to not worry, but the realist decided I wouldn’t attend without at least one other friend for support.
I found it difficult to recruit some friends whom I thought would really benefit from an experience like APB, and I mostly only managed to convince friends who already had previous outdoors experience. The current glaring lack of people of color in the outdoors creates a feedback loop: many people of color don’t see themselves represented or have any experience in this predominantly white space, so they’ll likely just avoid it. Why put ourselves through experiences in a space that could potentially be uncomfortable at best and deadly at worst (especially for Black people)? Although I’m a brown, working class woman, I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to outdoors experiences in high school through local college persistence programs directed at students like me, such as The Woods Project. Being introduced to this space alongside peers from my own community allowed me to build an appreciation for nature and outdoor recreation in a safe and comfortable environment.
I’m very happy that I took a chance on APB, because it turned out to be the best case scenario I’d predicted earlier: discomfort. Discomfort at the fact that I’m in a predominantly white space that serves to protect a predominantly white community from the effects of the pandemic on their lives and educational experiences — the same pandemic which is disproportionately killing Black and brown people in comparison to white people. The pandemic in which many low-income college students and/or students of color are struggling with unstable housing, food insecurity, and unreliable WiFi within a predominantly white system of higher education already stacked against them even in pre-pandemic conditions.
There are only 6 students of color in APB’s founding cohort of 34 students. None of us are Black or Indigenous. Only 9% of students are receiving aid. Although these are highly disappointing aspects of APB, the program is young, and APB instructors have thankfully been extremely receptive to our feedback. Together we’re working on anti-racism discussions and decentering whiteness from APB’s community culture. We’ve set up a GoFundMe to raise money to sponsor low-income students’ APB experiences and make this space more accessible and supportive to working class students and students of color. I’m excited to involve myself in carving a new path through higher education for other students with similar experiences as mine to follow and find community, safety, closeness with nature, and fun.