October 23, 2002: On the Campus

Fresh-faced and fearful

Time in the woods with Outdoor Action clears away jitters

By Melissa Harvis Renny ’03

Illustration: felipe galindo

It was the end of summer vacation before senior year, and I was crammed into Dillon Gym with 190 other Princeton students, cheering and screaming as we waited for our freshmen to arrive. They trickled in slowly, dressed in outfits picked out for the first day of school, smiling timid smiles and searching for some sign of what their first week at Princeton would bring.

It was my third year leading the Outdoor Action freshman orientation trip, the optional five-day backpacking trip that freshmen can take before they begin classes at Princeton. This year we were expecting about 600 freshmen, more than half of the Class of 2006.

My two coleaders and I sat our seven frosh down on the gym floor and tried to speak over the raucous noise bouncing off the walls. We played a name game, formed a human knot, and rushed them out of the gym before anyone could ask us to “jump and shake your booty.”

Over dinner the new ones were quiet, but broke off into smaller groups to talk about their hometowns and high schools. They were from Louisiana and New York, California, and Florida. They played the oboe, acted, and golfed.

In the morning, I had already forgotten some of their names as we packed our backpacks and headed to the buses in the pouring rain. When the bus dropped us off by the Appalachian Trail marker on the side of a north Jersey road three hours later, it was below 50 degrees and raining.

I tried to keep a positive attitude as we started along the trail, moving slowly and stopping often. At our campsite, my coleaders and I immediately put the frosh to work, showing them how to tie knots that would keep our tarp sturdy, and seeing who could throw a rope high enough to set up a bear-bag in a tree. We lit our fuel-burning stoves and set them to work chopping vegetables and slicing cheese for fajitas.

After dinner we wasted no time going to bed, huddling together for warmth, listening to the sound of the rain falling onto our tarp.

By lunch on the second day the rain had almost stopped, and we started to sing on the trail, belting out Disney tunes and Beatles songs. We took a long lunch break halfway through our nine-mile hike, gorging ourselves on peanut butter and tuna fish. And then they began to talk, expounding on their fears about Princeton and their preconceptions: Were there drugs? Did everyone smoke? What were the eating clubs like? I smiled as I answered questions, thinking that these freshmen were far wiser than I had been three years earlier.

By the third night they had learned what made a new campsite feel like home, and three of them set up the tarp without help from a leader, tying the knots that had seemed so complicated only a few days before. We told jokes about going to the bathroom in the woods and about wiping runny noses on shirtsleeves without thinking about it. That night I fell asleep to talking and laughter from chess masters and aspiring novelists.

On the final evening we stared at the stars as we talked about the high and low points of the trip. For some reason, none of us remembered the rain or the heavy packs, the bruises on our hipbones or the blisters on our heels. Instead, one freshman said, “I feel like I have a family at Princeton. I’m not scared to start school anymore.”

I fell asleep that night wanting to freeze time and stay in our OA cocoon forever, keeping my freshmen safe from the stresses and decisions they would face in the coming weeks, months, and years. Then I thought about the conversations we had on the trail and the way they interacted, always looking out for each other and helping where it was needed. I remembered how quickly they formed a unit, and how much fun they had together. And as much as I wanted to stay in the outdoors, away from my own stresses of thesis writing and job-searching, I couldn’t wait to make my way down McCosh Walk and run into my smiling freshmen, eager to see a face that somehow felt like home.

Melissa Renny ’03 is an English major from Linwood, New Jersey, who loves the outdoors.


ON THE CAMPUS ONLINE: John Lurz ’03 meets with his senior thesis adviser and discovers that he is actually human. Click here.



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