Meet Lawrenceville's Most Outdoorsy Guy: A Profile on John Hughes

Riley McKibben ’25 in Features | January 13, 2023

Do you ever wonder who advises the Ropes Course Instructors, or who manages the Harkness Travel Programs? What about who oversees Lawrenceville’s School Camp (or “SCAMP”) every summer? One faculty member wears all of these hats…the man, the myth, the legend: John Hughes. As Lawrenceville’s Director of Experiential Education Hughes has been able to share his love for “the profound way that people [can] transform and learn in unpredictable ways.” In each of his encounters with education outside of our traditional classroom, Hughes has made new and exciting discoveries about himself and others. 
Hughes first attended a sleepaway camp when he was eight years old, beginning his relationship with experiential education. When he was 15, he enrolled in a two-week exchange program in France. At 17, he spent the summer in China with no understanding of the language. Thus, after playing football and studying international relations in college, Hughes considered enlisting in the military or the state department. Unfortunately, an injury ended his collegiate athletic career, and he was forced to redirect his compass to focus on different goals. He found himself working as a camp counselor that summer in Poland, Maine on a ropes course. Hughes was immediately captivated by the art of facilitation—gently guiding a group’s experiential education—as he recalls his “peak experience, that sweet spot of challenge and skills [that keeps] you in your learning zone the whole time.” Since then, Hughes has cultivated a career that focuses on this passion. 
As the Director of the Ropes Course, Hughes exercises his experiential education skills through both low ropes activities and the three climbing structures alike. When asked about his favorite activity on “The Josh,” as the Joshua L. Miner Ropes Course is affectionately called, he replied, “I can’t pick one answer!” Hughes explained that his first highlight of each year is developing a unique skill set for the Ropes Course Instructors (RCIs) during training week. He described the week as “so intense and exhausting,” but added that “seeing the reward in skill development, group dynamics and facilitation makes the process such a joy to be a part of.” His second favorite piece of pioneering the Ropes Course Team is watching the RCIs use their facilitation preparation during II Form Orientation and House Sundays. Hughes finds more substance in the personal development and group dynamic work on The Josh than the physical component of climbing because “people are encouraged to push their boundaries, whatever that looks like for them.” 
Additionally, as a leader of the Harkness Travel program at Lawrenceville, Hughes spends a great amount of time scouting out new trips, as well as leading active ones. His travels include the Grand Canyon, Iceland, Austria, Nepal, Tanzania, Hawaii, and soon, Patagonia. When asked of his favorite experience so far, Hughes answered, “the next one” with a laugh. “My mindset for trips is [that] I’ve been to places before. I’ve never been to these places with the groups I’m with…I get to re-experience a place for the first time through my students…it’s like asking which one of your children is your favorite.” According to Hughes, the standard process to prepare and execute a Harkness Travel trip can take over a year. With 12 or 13 active groups per year, faculty is offered a showcase in March to present their ideas and intentions for a potential trip. From there, trip decisions come down to logistics, safety and health risks and as much global representation as possible. Hughes also mentioned that “some trips are kind of in a rotation.” If a student has their heart set on a hiking trip based in biochemical sciences in a certain place, it’s likely that “something equally as exciting would be offered the next year in a different location.”
Hughes also shows a great affinity for SCAMP. He was excited upon hearing that running SCAMP was a part of his job at Lawrenceville, as he attended camp when he was younger and truly resonated with the program. A camper's typical day at SCAMP includes a 7:15 AM wake-up time, an 8:00 AM breakfast, and a cabin and camp-wide cleanup before a rotation of activities such as performing arts, nature lessons, swimming practice, or practicing fundamentals of sports like basketball or soccer. After a 12:30 PM lunch, each day has a different pre-planned “fun activity,” followed by a free swim and dinner. An all-camp evening activity follows afterward, as does an all-too-soon 8:30 PM bedtime and 9:30 PM lights-out rule. The point of this schedule is to maintain structure and fun, while warding off a camper’s inclination to be idle. Hughes’s favorite parts about SCAMP are the two bookend campfires, which occur on the first and last nights. He described how on the first night, campers share hope for their summer and add the stick to the fire, but on the last night, they put a stick in the fire and share something that they are thankful for. With a glimmer in his eyes, Hughes mentioned that they “wait for everybody to say something, especially for those little ones who are too shy to speak up. By the last night, you see how transformed the campers are. Lots of tears are shed on the last night, and most of the answers don’t have to do with ‘I learned how to swim,’ but rather, ‘I made amazing friends and I am so happy for my experience here.’” 
Finally, Hughes shared a story from his two-week trip to Iceland in June of 2017, which he believes perfectly represents the power of experiential education. On the last five days of the trip, the group was set to trek through the Laugavegur hiking path, but upon waking up on the first day, there was a blinding fog with hail, rain, and sleet, making hiking seemingly impossible. Regardless, the group had to reach the next hut by the end of the day to continue the trip as scheduled. With the proper gear and as positive of an attitude as could be mustered, Hughes led his students 20 minutes into the storm. “When I felt my underwear start to get wet,” he said with a chuckle, “and the saturation of water through my Gore-Tex Pro-everything on, I told myself I would be soaked to the bone all day. This wasn’t going to be comfortable.” Soon, he gathered everyone together, looking out at his students’ scared eyes, and said, “Get used to being uncomfortable.” Hughes was right, and the entire group was drenched the entire rest of the day, walking straight through rivers, unafraid of adding more water to their weight. Once they arrived at their cabin, they hung up all their clothes and enjoyed a much-deserved and fantastic meal, while acknowledging that if they could get through this, they could get through anything. When the students on the trip returned to school the next year, one girl stood up at school meeting to tell the story. She recalled that she now used the mantra that Hughes used to fuel her internal fire in Iceland to propel her towards her V Form year successes. “To this day,” Hughes closed his story, “that was one of the most profound challenges that I led a group through, and certainly the most powerful and moving day for a group.”