A community outdoors

Academia and the outdoors can be isolating for graduate students of color. Ph.D. student Amber Khan is changing this with the group UW POC Outdoors.

In the middle of October, UW doctoral student Amber Khan took a hike up Mt. Si that was different from the treks she’s used to going on with her husky.

That day, she was surrounded by more than a dozen fellow graduate students and alumni, who were all people of color. The hikers were part of a new group Khan had started at UW last year — UW POC Outdoors — aimed at diversifying the outdoors and building community amongst fellow BIPOC graduate students through hiking, backpacking, and other outdoor recreation training.

Amber hugs her husky, perched on a cliff with a mountain in the background

Khan and her husky (Photo courtesy Amber Khan)

“Academia is isolating as a BIPOC graduate student and trying to break into the super white space of getting into the mountains is super intimidating as BIPOC, so those two commonalities make this group special for BIPOC grad students,” Khan said.

Khan has been an avid lover of the outdoors for years. As a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, the environment is both something she studies for work, and something she uses to destress and find peace.

But she’s found that, just like academia, recreational activities from hiking to mountaineering are predominantly white spaces. Research also shows the pervasiveness of this: A National Parks survey found that visitors to the parks are predominantly white, with people of color making up only 20 percent of visitors.

Khan sees the barriers her fellow BIPOC peers face when it comes to participating in the outdoors. The cost of gear, transportation to hiking trails, lack of mentors who are people of color, feeling unsafe, or lack of time from working multiple jobs are just a few challenges faced by BIPOC when breaking into outdoor activities.

Khan herself was introduced to recreating outside in high school when one of her friends, who is white, invited her on camping and backpacking trips with her family in the Bay Area. The two are still friends to this day and are now both doctoral students at UW.

Since then, Khan has spent hours teaching herself the basics of hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering, figuring out which equipment to buy, which routes to take, and all the while, looking for a community of fellow people of color to go with.

A dozen people sit on rocks and smile at the camera

A dozen graduate students and alumni during an October hike up Mt. Si with the UW POC Outdoors group. (Photo courtesy Amber Khan).

She even found her own mentor through a climbers of color group, who supports her in her ambition to climb and mountaineer. Mountaineering requires advanced training, technical skills, and expensive equipment, making mentorship a valuable part of the journey.

“It’s cool to find other women of color who are like, ‘Yeah, this is my hobby too; it’s very niche, I’m surrounded by white men, but I want to climb big peaks some day.’”

After learning that UW didn’t already have an affinity group for graduate students of color participating in outdoor activities, Khan started her own.

Join UW POC Outdoors

Interested in learning more about UW POC Outdoors? Follow along on Instagram or email Amber Khan at akhan92@uw.edu for more information about how to participate.

The first meetup at a brewery was supposed to happen the week COVID-19 closed schools in March 2020. Since then, Khan’s been leading socially-distanced training sessions with small groups in Gas Works Park on topics like how to prepare a pack for overnight backpacking or the basics of mountaineering. She’s also called for gear donations to support people who need outdoor equipment.

“I think the more we give opportunities and lower the barriers the more this traditionally white space will change,” Khan said.

Khan is also a member of the student advisory board for the Graduate School’s Office of Graduate Student Equity and Excellence (GSEE), which supports graduate students of color.

She helps give input on events that GSEE runs, such as Real Talk Tuesdays, a safe place for BIPOC graduate students around campus to connect. GSEE has also been a place where students like Khan can feel supported in pointing out systemic issues at UW that are still harming students of color, such as when a recent survey failed to provide inclusive demographic options for participants to accurately share their identities.

“GSEE has done so much for me personally,” Khan said “The team there is so fun to talk to and they make you feel like you’re part of the family. I’m glad GSEE is there to make that space for us.”

Amber hikes in snow with snowshoes and poles with a river and tress in the background

Khan climbing Mt. Ellinor in the Olympics (Photo courtesy Amber Khan).

When she’s not backpacking or mountaineering, Khan is researching a more stressful, yet incredibly important, side of the outdoors: disasters.

There are four stages of managing disasters: mitigation, planning, response, and recovery. Khan studies this last stage, recovery, and it’s one of the least focused-on when it comes to research, funding and policy.

While it’s difficult to study, the social, health and economic impacts are widely felt. Disasters like Hurricane Katrina leave many survivors unhoused for years after, which is the focus of Khan’s research on recovery. While climate change will cause population displacement, Khan is finding there aren’t a lot of contingency plans in the United States for what to do when that happens.

“I was thinking about what aspects of recovery are most interesting and crucial to public health and I got into housing,” Khan said. “Housing is a human right and there’s so little work being done on housing recovery.”

Amber stands on snow with hiking poles and backpack in front of a snowy peak.

Khan hikes up Mt. Hood in Oregon (Photo courtesy Amber Khan)

It’s especially applicable to the Pacific Northwest, which is expecting a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. In this event, Khan is already thinking about where people will be housed, the challenges of moving people around the Seattle-area, which is connected by dozens of bridges over large bodies of water, the complications of a devastating earthquake happening during the winter season, and the health implications this all can have.

In a recent first-author paper, Khan shares how researchers and public health practitioners can prepare to conduct research in the event of a natural disaster, like this earthquake. Collecting this valuable data will increase our knowledge about the health consequences of disasters, and hopefully improve response and recovery for future events.

“Grad school has allowed me to actually explore what I was interested in and ask questions with a really supportive committee,” Khan said. “I’ve been able to shape it to exactly the questions I want to ask.”


By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Published Nov. 16, 2021