HUBBARD — If you are at the Andrews Student Recreation and Wellness Center at Youngstown State University during the week, you will see RJ Markowitz, coordinator of adventure recreation, instructing students on the 53-foot climbing wall.
He also lends out the equipment they need to traverse it, as well as tents, kayaks, paddles and life vests for backpacking or hiking trips.
When Markowitz graduated from Niles McKinley High School in 2006, he left for the University of Akron to major in e-marketing and advertising. Little did he know that the hobbies he picked up on that campus would lead him to his career.
Childhood excursions lit the ember of his interest in outdoor sports.
“Cycling was something that I loved. My grandfather got me into doing that. He picked it up as a hobby at 65. Whenever we came to visit him, he would take us on bike rides through Cleveland Metroparks and he made sure we had the helmets and equipment we needed,” Markowitz said.
While attending UA, he was given the opportunity to borrow camping and other gear, which piqued his interest in these activities.
“The first time I went backpacking, it was me and a roommate. I remember coyote howls getting closer and closer to the tents and being sore because I overpacked. It was an ‘aha moment’ that this is something I enjoy, but I need to get better and smarter on these trips. I saw it as a challenge to improve at something that I really enjoyed and make it more enjoyable,” Markowitz said.
The original backpacking friend evolved into a core group of five on these trips, but their initial forays into the woods left something to be desired.
“We all met at the honors dorm. I remember using borrowed equipment. We used trash bags as rain covers and wore work boots. Our equipment evolved as we graduated and got real jobs. We still get together twice a year to go on camping trips,” he said.
He decided that Akron did not suit him or his education goals, so he transferred to YSU.
“At that point, I knew that I enjoyed history a lot. I enjoyed writing. I thought maybe I could teach this,” Markowitz said.
He received his undergraduate degree in middle school education in 2012. While student teaching, he discovered that a traditional school setting was not a good fit.
“I got into the classroom, and I started working with children, and I thought, ‘I don’t think this is for me.’ I had great experiences. So, that is when I decided to get my master’s degree in counseling with a focus on higher education,” he said.
While studying for his advanced degree, he did not abandon his involvement in adventure activities.
“I was still doing all these outdoor activities — riding my bike, backpacking and kayaking,” he said.
Luckily for Markowitz, his two chief interests in higher education and his hobbies were converging into his future employment destination.
“This is when all these pieces started to come together for me in grad school. YSU had a similar program of lending out equipment like Akron did. I asked my adviser if I could intern at the rec center,” Markowitz said.
Timing was in his favor.
“I loved this stuff. I was going into higher education and thinking of going into advising. The director gave me a shot at an internship. I succeeded at it, and it just so happened that a position was opening up a year after I graduated,” he said about the serendipitous occurrence.
Four months after he received his master’s degree in October 2015, he was offered the chance to work temporarily in the rec center as coordinator of adventure recreation. After one year, the permanent job was offered to him.
“It is fun participating in adventure sports and helping students enjoy these activities,” he said.
Still , Markowitz sees a different aspect of his job as the most important.
“Even though I have a passion for the outdoors, I will put this above everything else, my passion for student development. Seeing these students who have little or no experience with this, hiring them and really seeing them grow and flourish and know that I had a small part in that is tremendous. It is also the relationships that you build. Alumni stay in touch,” he said.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Markowitz found a way for students to be part of a community.
“I was one of the first programs to go at YSU. I said, ‘These students have nothing to do. They’re just sitting here and getting depressed.’ I developed a safe way to engage outdoors. They wore masks. We limited the number of people participating. They social-distanced and we met at Mill Creek Park and hiked,” he said.
Markowitz has found the perfect balance in his position at YSU. He can pursue his adventure recreation hobbies while still using his education to instruct and help students develop in a nontraditional setting.
He and his wife, Carlye, got married in October 2020 during the pandemic in their backyard and via Zoom. They took a delayed honeymoon cruise to Alaska in June, where they did some hiking.
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