The Best Way to Get Experience: Venture Outdoors!

Stasia Lopez's picture

Lora Woodward is an avid outdoor enthusiast and non-profit professional, with the enviable ability to call work 'play.' For the past eight years, she has been working for Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Venture Outdoors, an organization dedicated to getting people outside. As the Program Director, she oversees the organization's client and program development, leadership training, volunteer management, and risk management. Lora has been leading outdoor recreational outings for the past 14 years for the University of Pittsburgh, the Student Conservation Association, and Venture Outdoors. She loves hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and recently completed a week-long bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. along the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath. She is a Wilderness First Responder and is trained in CPR, First Aid, Boating and Water Safety Awareness, and Leave No Trace principles. She has continued her outdoor education with courses through the Wilderness Risk Management Conference, American Canoe Association, Tom Brown Tracker School, and Vermont Wilderness School. When she's not outside discovering nature for fun, she's inside a skating rink practicing roller derby. She has served on the Board of Directors for Trail Pittsburgh for four years, and Steel City Roller Derby for two years. Lora earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2005.

Lora Woodward: The Best Way to Get Experience: Venture Outdoors!

How did you choose your major in college? How did you choose the college[s] you chose? Did you have a mentor or person who helped guide you through that process?

I attended the University of Pittsburgh and received a Bachelor of Arts in English Writing following the Creative Nonfiction track. I originally was an Information Science major because that’s what most closely aligned to my father’s profession. I viewed him as successful and wanted that for myself. I realized after the second semester that my literature and writing classes inspired me much more than computer programming, and I didn’t want to sit behind a computer or in a cubicle all day, so I switched majors. (The irony is that I do sit in a cubicle behind a computer all day!)

Did you always want to work in nonprofit/NGO work? 

After switching majors, I thought I’d write a book or be a freelance writer. I like writing, but in my last year of college I began to explore other interests. That’s when I started volunteering with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and really enjoyed working with high school youth to build trails or pick up trash in city greenspaces. I lead regional and national trail crews with SCA that summer. After finishing up, I was lost until my grandfather suggested teaching overseas. I got a yearlong job as a board school supervisor and teach intern at an international school in Thailand. While there, I felt a strong draw to come back to Pittsburgh and be a part of the burgeoning nonprofit scene. This was 2007. That fall, I got a program coordinator position with Venture Outdoors and have been with the organization ever since.

Lora Woodward: The Best Way to Get Experience: Venture Outdoors!

Where did you attend college, what did you major in? How did you gain experiences to prepare you for the work you currently do now?

I write all the time in my current work: grant reports, proposals, training manuals, and lots and lots of emails! I am happy that I majored in writing at Pitt because I had stellar professors that really pushed me to experiment with my writing style and find my voice. While in college, I was very active in the outdoors club. That program allowed me to try rock climbing, caving, whitewater rafting, whitewater kayaking, and canoeing. I even led a week-long canoe trip in the Everglades for spring break! I received a Global Studies certificate and spent six weeks in Valparaiso, Chile. I volunteered at the radio station WYEP during college and during the last year of school I volunteered with the Student Conservation Association. The amalgamation of experiences that I had while in college prepared me for the work I do now as the Program Director for Venture Outdoors.

What are some of the challenges about your job? How do you tackle those challenges?

There is always more work to do than the number of hours in a day. The biggest challenge is prioritizing all of the different short and long-term demands. I am still trying to figure out how to get it all done! Another challenge is recognizing areas that I need more training in and finding the time to get the necessary training. For me, it is staff management and business acumen. I’ve been taking business classes the last two semesters and they have really helped, but I still bump into the barrier of not having enough time to fit everything in that I want to accomplish.

Lora Woodward: The Best Way to Get Experience: Venture Outdoors!

What is the interview process like for this organization? Any tips for interns or people seeking a job with the organization?

For interns, the interview process is pretty awesome. We ask potential interns what their interest is in our organization, what they want to achieve by the time they finish their internship, and then we tell them what our interests are and see where they align. We do a great job of matching interests with projects that meet the organization’s wants or needs and the student’s. Plus, our interns get a mix of office and field time, so it’s a healthy balance. 

For prospective job candidates, we are looking for the right person to fill the position in terms of talent, experience, and personality. We expect you to follow the application instructions, dress and conduct yourself professionally during the interview and really let your talents shine through. 

What do you currently do to achieve work/life balance? Any advice for students, graduates, and entry-level professionals that you could provide?

I play roller derby! Seriously, it is my meditation. I love the sport and it is a really great release. I can’t think about anything else going on in my work life while on the track because I’ll be blindsided with a good block. A sport or hobby really helps. I’ve participated in extracurricular activities, like being on board of directors, doing leadership fellow programs, and taking classes; they can be really good professional and personal development opportunities, but they can also burn you out if they are too much like work. I’m still trying to figure out the right balance.

Lora Woodward: The Best Way to Get Experience: Venture Outdoors!

What are the benefits/perks of your job?

I get to work with really amazing people. My boss, coworkers, our volunteer trip leaders, board members, and outing participants are all really great people that have a common interest in believing in the benefits of spending time outdoors. I have also acquired a vast knowledge of parks, trails, rivers, and neighborhoods to explore and have access to a bunch of toys to go play with, like a whole fleet of kayaks!

Lora Woodward: The Best Way to Get Experience: Venture Outdoors!

Anything else you’d like to share?

Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you and make your own opportunities. A lot of nonprofit professionals would be happy to chat over coffee about their career path and how to help you along on yours. If you want something enough, you’ll figure out how to get it. It just takes persistence and luck!



Stasia Lopez is the Global Education Editor for Wandering Educators and is also a Career Consultant at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated with her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Western Michigan University and earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Stasia is passionate about international education, travel,  and loves working on a college campus. She’s lived in four different U.S. states (Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania) and also studied and lived abroad in Rome, Italy. Stasia lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, Fernando.


All photos courtesy and copyright Lora Woodward