Outdoor Orientations Can Help Students Acclimate to College

As students apply to college, they may want to consider schools with wilderness orientation programs.

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As students apply to colleges and universities this winter, they probably aren't thinking too much about orientation programs. As they get closer to selecting the school where they'll spend their next four or more years, they may find their future institution has a freshman orientation program that's literally off the beaten path.

Many students say that "outdoor," "wilderness," or "adventure" programs—which one scholar defines as trips where students spend at least one night camping outside—offer a range of benefits: leaving one's comfort zone, getting in touch with nature, and meeting future classmates who can become lifelong friends.

Depending on the school, the outdoor orientations—which a commenter of the message board College Confidential calls "girl/boy scout camp for freshmen"—range from a few days to a few weeks. Activities on many of the trips include hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, and backpacking, though many schools offer less active options, such as yoga or painting.

Some students say that roughing it isn't for everybody. "It goes without saying that three weeks in the wilderness—no showers, no beds, no Internet, [and] swarms of mosquitoes—is not everyone's cup of tea," says Jeffrey Holliday, who graduated in 2010 from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.

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Holliday spent three weeks on Earlham's August Wilderness program in 2006, canoeing in Ontario, Canada, at Wabakimi Provincial Park with nine other incoming freshmen, student leaders, and a professor.

"In general, I've met way more students who didn't go on [August Wilderness] and wish they had than the other way around," says Holliday, who later led the program several times and minored in outdoor education.

Sally Platt, a sophomore at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., says her school's Leading Edge pre-orientation program, in which students hike more than 10 miles each day in the Appalachian Mountains, is intense, but that it was "one of my definitive experiences at Washington and Lee."

"There are rocks and snakes and bugs. You haven't showered. If you've followed official guidelines you haven't even brought deodorant (which almost everyone does, thank goodness)," she says. "You are dirty and sweaty and tired. And you are spending every hour of every day with the same 10 people. You are bound to come together."

According to an October 2011 Associated Press article, which cites research from Brent Bell, associate professor of outdoor education at University of New Hampshire, the number of programs such as the ones Holliday and Platt attended is on the rise.

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The research, detailed in a 2010 journal article that Bell coauthored, found that 11.5 percent of the 1,758 U.S. colleges and universities studied had some sort of outdoor orientation program. 

By Bell’s most current count, there are 200 outdoor orientation programs in the United States in 2011. Of those programs, 90 percent are optional, 88 percent are run by students, and 79 percent offer no college credit. During 66 percent of the programs, according to Bell's research, the most common incidents are blisters or ankle programs, which is something Princeton University alumna Jennifer Palmer knows about all too well.

A few days into her weeklong backpacking trip as an incoming freshman, Palmer had such painful blisters from her new hiking boots that she had to leave the group for two nights to recover at a hotel. While Palmer recommends programs such as Princeton's for the opportunities they provide to meet other students, she wishes she had selected Princeton's community service option instead of the hiking trip.

"I should have known that camping wasn't my thing," she says.

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At some schools, outdoor programs aren't voluntary. Wyoming Catholic College has a mandatory, three week "wilderness expedition," and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, runs a required program called COOT—Colby Outdoor Orientation Trips.