“The mountains call us in their sun-dappled splendor. Let’s get out and play,” President Adam Falk said on Mountain Day 2016.
As we, Williams students, are reminded every year, Mountain Day is about getting outside as a community and enjoying the beautiful nature that surrounts us. Knowing all of this, I think it is deeply problematic for Mountain Day to be framed as a day that is “quintessentially Williams” when it is inaccessible to so many students. Much of the culture at the College enforces body normativity and exercise culture that is deeply unhealthy and alienating to a number of students, and Mountain Day is just another example of how the College’s traditions can exclude certain groups of people.
Mountain Day was established in the late 1800s, and many core aspects of the College have changed dramatically since then, including the makeup of the student body. Centuries-old traditions have not automatically transformed themselves to best suit our current wants and needs. We must make the conscious choice to acknowledge our history and to work to make all aspects of our college more inclusive.
At the root of my discomfort with this tradition is the expectation that all people can and want to hike a mountain, and the implication that if you cannot or do not want to, that makes you less of a part of the College community. Within a student culture that already cultivates such strong body-related pressures, it is not appropriate for the College to pass judgment on our bodies and our choices in any manner. I do not become a more valid member of the College community because I go to the gym six days a week instead of three. There are plenty of ways for us to engage with the outdoors on this annual school holiday that do not necessarily involve hiking, yet such activities are not included in the tradition of Mountain Day.
Of course, it is unhelpful to critique without offering solutions, so here are a few of my ideas on how to make Mountain Day a more inclusive school holiday.
One, make it easier for students to either drive up the mountain or be driven in some way by the Williams Outing Club (WOC). Whether it is because you cannot climb the mountain or because you simply don’t want to, it is not the College’s job to tell anyone that climbing a mountain is an essential part of participation in the day. If the day is truly about nature and community, it should be easily accessible to all students. There should be no shame in choosing not to hike, and there should be no barriers for those who choose not to. You should not have to produce your entire medical history to ride a van to the top.
Two, choose a more accessible hike. I understand that for those of us who are inclined towards outdoors exercise, the Mountain Day hike is likely a breeze. But every year, I get to the top of the mountain and hear countless people, athletes and non-athletes alike, remarking, “That is not an easy hike.” It turns off and turns away countless people who want to participate in this tradition but who don’t want to struggle up the mountain. And again, it is not the College’s job to police anyone’s exercise habits. If we still want to go to Stony Ledge, perhaps there is a place closer to the top where students could be dropped off and do a shorter and less steep hike.
Three, perhaps, instead of the mountains being the center of the day, there could be more events that are on campus. Maybe something involving art, such as nature photography, free-drawing at different picturesque locations around campus or writing nature-inspired poetry. Or perhaps it could be structured more like the Lehman Center’s Day of Service. WOC could bus people to different places to work in mini trail crews. This could also draw in a variety of different student organizations, further expanding the reach of Mountain Day activities. These are just a few ideas, but I’m sure there are even more activities that would align with the themes of Mountain Day while engaging even more of the student body without taking resources away from the events that are already occurring.
To be clear, I am not trying to condemn Mountain Day as a school holiday. I love autumn at the College as much as the next person, and I think it’s actually admirable that we take a day off to appreciate the gorgeous place where we live. However, as the College is an educational institution, it seems essential that we expect it to continuously work to better serve all of its students and this seems like a wonderful place to start.
Justice Namaste ’17 is an American studies major from Williamsville, N.Y. She lives in Woodbridge.