Molly O'Hara

May 12, 2016

Chance encounter leads grad student to SIU degree

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Mairead O’Hara’s journey from a working cattle ranch “in the middle of nowhere” to graduating with her master’s degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale on Saturday, May 14, hinged on a chance encounter. 

O’Hara, known to friends as “Molly,” struck up a random conversation with Mitch Belsley, then an SIU graduate assistant, at an Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education conference a few years ago. What Belsley, now an SIU alumnus, told O’Hara piqued her interest in a place more than 900 miles from home. 

“He told me what an unexpectedly pretty campus and area this is. He said it’s a great school and that there is a lot of good climbing nearby and all kinds of great opportunities for day trips,” she recalled.  

O’Hara, the daughter of Kevin and Elizabeth O’Hara, developed a deep appreciation for the outdoors growing up more than a half-hour drive from the nearest town of Fredericksburg, Texas. She loves backpacking, paddling, climbing and a myriad of other recreational activities. So, after earning double bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and Spanish along with a minor in psychology from Sam Houston State University, she took Belsey’s recommendation to heart and applied for a graduate assistantship and enrolled at SIU -- sight unseen. 

O’Hara’s original plan was to become a federal law enforcement officer. But, she worked for four years for Sam Houston State University’s outdoor program while completing her undergraduate degrees and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, so she altered her career path. When she arrived at SIU she intended to work in SIU’s outdoor programs through Recreational Sports and Services as she completed her master’s degree in higher education administration.  

Arriving three weeks before school began in the fall of 2014 in order to finalize housing and other arrangements, O’Hara quickly fell in love, she said. 

“The summer really made me appreciate the area,” she said. “It has some of the premier climbing in the Midwest and you’re usually a 10-minute drive or less from great paddling. And all of the flora really gets to me; it’s so beautiful.” 

But that was just the beginning, O’Hara said. 

“The community here is something else. I’m very thankful for the wonderful people,” she said. 

Then, it got even better. O’Hara said she discovered she could actually get her master’s degree in recreation at SIU, the place where the field of outdoor recreation really started, and “that has been very powerful.” 

She said the university has given her the chance to turn her passion for the outdoors into a career and along the way, she has gotten incredible hands-on learning experiences that she doesn’t think she would have found anywhere else. At SIU she learned about student affairs, social justice issues, diversity and gender equality and as she changed majors, she realized she could combine her interest in those areas with her love for outdoor recreation to create programs to benefit people. 

“SIU has given me the opportunity to explore, learn, change and grow. I knew I wanted a job where I could have a positive impact on people at some level and recreation is an ideal marriage of the things I love. I feel connected to the world, other people and myself. I feel like every time I go outside, I learn more about all three of those things and I like helping other people do that, too,” she said. 

In conjunction with her graduate assistantship, O’Hara has managed all facets of the Outdoor Pursuits program under the guidance of Jeff Goelz, assistant director of Recreational Sports and Services’ aquatics and outdoor pursuits. This includes the climbing wall, canoe and equipment rentals, educational clinics and trips. She’s also undertaken a big job that is showing noticeable payoffs for new students and the university, her supervisors say. 

“Molly is an excellent graduate assistant for our Outdoor Pursuits program but what really sets her apart is that she was the mastermind who helped develop and lead the inaugural Dawg Days extended orientation last August. It was a very intense process that produced significant outcomes for the 120 new freshmen who participated,” Sally Wright, associate director of programs for Recreational Sports and Services, said. 

“Molly has had a tremendous impact on and been an amazing addition to our Outdoor Pursuits program. She developed trip leader training that enabled our OP student employees to gain many new skills and experiences. Molly has continuously impressed the professional staff by developing and training staff and by organizing the now famous Dawg Days,” Goelz added. 

Campus discussions about creating a special extended orientation for freshmen, an event designed to help them transition to Saluki life and be better prepared and more successful, began in late 2014. O’Hara’s proposal for Dawg Days extended orientation was selected and beginning in early 2015, O’Hara and numerous SIU administrators, faculty members, and staff from various campus units including RSS and Touch of Nature Environmental Center began meeting and planning. 

O’Hara had some experience with an extended orientation from her work at Sam Houston, but she was emphatic that Dawg Days wouldn’t be a re-creation of their Bearkat Camp but rather, “something really unique to SIU and its traditions. The idea of extended orientation is to create a sense of family and belonging, to get the new students acquainted with the university and all of its resources and enhance their academic focus.” 

The four-day, three-night retreat at Touch of Nature included small group activities, evening socials and countless activities. The idea was to create a sense of family, community and belonging and this has positively impacted them, O’Hara said. 

Preliminary numbers indicate that the retention rate for those attending Dawg Days was nine percent higher than the retention rate for other freshmen.Participants’ grade point averages are about .5 points higher than the average GPAs for the last five years of freshman classes. 

Due to the success of the inaugural event, O’Hara is leading preparations for an even bigger 2016 Dawg Days. This year, there will be three sessions available, each accepting up to 120 new students. In addition, there will be a pair of adventure trips, one hiking the Colorado trails and another rafting and biking in the Smokey Mountains, for new students to enjoy. The extended orientation experience will be offered to 382 students, rather than 120, this year.  

“I definitely never thought when I came to SIU I would be able to play an important role in a great new program like this. The caliber of my educational experience has really been remarkable,” O’Hara said. “I feel like the success I’ve had is because of the support from all over campus and the people. The rec center family is really special and I can honestly say I’ve learned not only from faculty, staff and the people I’ve worked with but from my fellow graduate students and from the undergraduate students.” 

After graduation, O’Hara is going to stick around SIU for a few months, working for Touch of Nature, co-teaching the 16-day summer immersive outdoor recreation Expedition Leadership class and leading the second Dawg Days.