College outdoor orientation programs on the rise

If Dartmouth College freshman Mohammed Aftisse ends up making tons of friends and trying lots of new experiences in the next four years, he might owe it all to a giant sow named Randy. ...

If Dartmouth College freshman Mohammed Aftisse ends up making tons of friends and trying lots of new experiences in the next four years, he might owe it all to a giant sow named Randy.

Coming to Dartmouth from his home in New York City, Aftisse had no idea what he was getting into when he signed up to spend five days last week on a Vermont farm as part of the college's outdoor orientation program. But after tending chickens, cows and a litter of piglets birthed by the enormous Randy, he said the experience far exceeded his expectations about how much fun he'd have and how much he would get out of it. He initially was nervous about getting along with new people, but ended up convinced that making friends at Dartmouth would be a breeze.

"I don't think I could have chosen anything else to better prepare me," he said. "I totally stepped out of my comfort zone in choosing farm living, and it was so much fun. There was not one downside. So it definitely encouraged me to do that more often in terms of anything, like taking classes and just my time in college."

Since Dartmouth pioneered the concept in 1935, outdoor orientation programs have spread to colleges and universities across the country, grown in size and changed in scope. But the wilderness programs all share the same goal: to help freshmen adjust to college life even before they enter a classroom.

Unlike traditional orientation programs that focus on familiarizing students with institutional policies and campus layout, outdoor orientation programs tend to emphasize social interaction, team work and self-confidence.

Last year, Brent Bell, assistant professor of outdoor education at the University of New Hampshire, published the first-ever census of outdoor orientation programs at the nation's colleges. His research shows that more than 17,000 students from 164 colleges and universities attended outdoor orientation programs in 2006, typically backcountry trips led by upperclassmen before classes start.

An average of 10 new programs were added each year between 2000-2006. And while Bell is still researching how many have been added since then, he estimates the growth rate has doubled. As of Friday, he counted 200 programs, or 11 percent of the nation's four-year residential colleges and universities.

While most schools have stayed true to the outdoor adventure model, Bell says some have expanded their offerings to attract a broader group of people. For example, Colby College in Maine, which has one of the few mandatory outdoor orientation programs, offers trips focused on painting, "mindfulness and meditation," and photography, as well as backpacking, surfing and rock climbing. Accommodations can be made for students with disabilities.

Like Colby, student leaders in Dartmouth's programs have revamped the trips to make them more eco-friendly, said Dan Nelson, director of outdoor programs. And like Colby, Dartmouth has begun adding different types of trips, such as nature writing, yoga, and photography. This year, 97 percent of freshmen participated.

West Virginia University has gone a step further, offering trips tailored to specific majors, such as journalism and business. Participants visit people working in those fields and get a chance to build bonds with future classmates, said Greg Corio, who developed the school's outdoor orientation program in 2003.

From an initial enrollment of 14 students, the program now has grown to about 600 participants this year, he said. In addition to attending trips, students meet in classrooms throughout the fall and write essays about their experiences to earn college credit.

Corio said the program's value shows up in an analysis of how many students return to campus after their freshman year. For students who participate, the retention rate is about 87 percent, or 10 percentage points higher than the rate among non-participants, he said.

"We're seeing the impact on students," he said. "It makes a huge difference in having that community and sense of belonging to the institution."

In the last several years, Corio has noticed in the post-trip essays more references to life without cell phones. Like many schools, West Virginia doesn't allow cell phones or musical devices on the trips. Cut off from Facebook and text messages, students are reporting that they are making stronger and better friendships, he said.

Andrew Jillings, director of the 28-year-old outdoor orientation program at New York's Hamilton College, said he has faced a similar scenario. Students are no less physically fit than they were in the past, but there is a "separation issue" that comes with taking away the digital accessories.

"It's a bit of a shock for some students," he said. "I spend a lot of time with the leaders on how to get students to sit and literally look around at each other and have a conversation."

A main focus for Jillings has been hiring trip leaders who understand that their job is not to sprinkle a bit of orientation into a wilderness program but to give freshmen a solid introduction in a wilderness setting.

"I don't necessarily hire the most rugged, woodsy leaders," he said.

The programs generally charge students an extra fee, often about $50 per day, said Bell, who calculated the average charge in 2006 at $291. In the past, students at larger colleges applied for financial aid directly from the orientation program, but Bell said more schools are now providing financial support through their financial aid offices or are paying for the programs entirely.

Bell, who has studied the post-trip essays written by West Virginia students and others, said the mark of a successful program is an essay that goes beyond "it was fun" to "I changed as a person. I feel as close to these people as I do to my family."

"You'd think it would vary mainly by trip, but actually it seems to vary more by school, and I think it's varying by the curriculum they're using for these programs," he said.

Dartmouth senior Emily Unger, who directs the trips program, said the "extreme hiking" trip she went on as a freshman was the most fun she had ever had. But it wasn't the hiking that made it so great.

"The sense of community that gets built and the sense of welcoming from the upperclassmen just blew me away," she said. "I felt like I had been welcomed into a family and felt like I was in a new home."

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