HUBBARD — If you’re at Youngstown State University’s Andrews Student Recreation and Wellness Center during the week, you’ll see Adventure Recreation Coordinator RJ Markowitz instructing students on the wall of climbing 53 feet.
It also lends the gear they need to navigate it, as well as tents, kayaks, paddles, and life jackets 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 chose on this campus would lead to his career.
His childhood excursions kindled the embers of his interest in outdoor sports.
“Cycling was something I loved. It was my grandfather who pushed me to do this. He chose it as a hobby at age 65. Every time we came to visit him, he would take us for bike rides in Cleveland Metroparks and he would make sure we had the helmets and gear we needed,” Markowitz said.
While studying at UA, he had the opportunity to borrow camping gear and other equipment, which piqued his interest in these activities.
“The first time I went backpacking was me and a roommate. I remember the coyotes howling coming closer and closer to the tents and hurting me because I had packed too much. C It was an “aha moment” that I enjoy, but I have to improve and be smarter on these trips. I saw it as a challenge to improve on something I really loved and make it more nice,” Markowitz said.
The original backpacking friend evolved into a party of five on these trips, but their first forays into the woods left something to be desired.
“We all met at the honors dorm. I remember using borrowed material. 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 camping,” he said.
He decided Akron was not right for him or his education goals, so he transferred to YSU.
“At that moment, I knew that I really liked the story. I liked to write. I thought maybe I could teach that,” Markowitz said.
He graduated with an undergraduate degree in middle school education in 2012. While teaching, he discovered that a traditional school setting was not for him.
“I walked into the classroom and started working with kids, and I was like, ‘I don’t think this is for me.’ I had some great experiences, so that’s when I decided to get my master’s degree in counseling with a focus on higher education,” he said.
During his graduate studies, he did not give up his involvement in adventure activities.
“I was still doing all these outdoor activities — biking, hiking and kayaking,” he said.
Luckily for Markowitz, his two main interests in higher education and his hobbies converged on his future job destination.
“That’s when all these pieces started coming together for me in grad school. YSU had a similar equipment loan program like Akron. I asked my advisor if I could do an internship at the rec center,” Markowitz said.
The timing was in his favor.
“I loved this thing. I was going to higher education and was thinking of becoming a counselor. The principal offered me an internship. I passed, and it turns out that a position opened up a year after I graduated,” he said of that fortuitous event.
Four months after completing his master’s degree in October 2015, he was offered the chance to work temporarily at the recreation center as an adventure recreation coordinator. After a year, he was offered a permanent job.
“It’s fun to participate in adventure sports and help students enjoy those activities,” he said.
Yet Markowitz sees a different aspect of his work as the most important.
“Even though I have a passion for the outdoors, I will put that above all else, my passion for student development. Seeing these students who have little or no experience in this field, hiring them and really seeing them grow and flourish and knowing that I played a small part in that is great. These are also the relationships you build. The elders stay in touch,” he said.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Markowitz has found a way for students to be part of a community.
“I was one of the first programs to go to YSU. I said, ‘These students don’t have anything to do. They’re just sitting here and depressed. I’ve developed a safe way to s’ engage outside. They wore masks. We limited the number of people attending. They socially 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 adventurous hobbies while using his upbringing to instruct and help students grow in a non-traditional setting.
He and his wife, Carlye, tied the knot in October 2020 during the pandemic in their backyard and via Zoom. They took a delayed honeymoon cruise to Alaska in June, where they went hiking.