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October 5, 2005: On the Campus

Illustration: Marc Rosenthal ’71; Photo below: Celene Chang ’06

Into the wilderness

By Amy Sennett ’06

A man in black spandex streaked across the floor of Dillon Gymnasium. The human wave swept through the room as a knight with a tinfoil hat drew her sword in defense of a gentleman in a pink prom dress. A chant rose up from the crowd: “We want freshmen!”

This circus-like atmosphere on the Saturday before Labor Day was the first taste of life at Princeton for members of the Class of 2009 in this year’s Outdoor Action freshman orientation program. On top of the typical fears about undergraduate life, these new collegians must deal with blisters, bug bites, and no showers for a week.

Outdoor Action, known simply as OA, sends groups of freshmen into the wilderness with upperclass leaders — the bizarre cast of characters in the gym — for six days of backpacking, climbing, or canoeing. This year, 561 freshmen, 45 percent of the incoming class, participated in 66 trips to places ranging from the Green Mountains of Vermont to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The operation requires 6,210 packets of instant oatmeal, 1,640 pounds of gorp (good old raisins and peanuts), and a summer-long effort by Outdoor Action director Rick Curtis ’79 and his team of student coordinators, all with the goal of easing the transition to college life.

As a “frosh” on a Saturday three Septembers ago, I badly desired acceptance from the sea of unfamiliar faces in the gym, and I shed more than a few tears of loneliness when I called my parents that night. Now, as a leader, that Saturday holds for me the thrill of knowing that I am about to powerfully affect someone’s Princeton experience.

How do other leaders remember their response to the madness inside the gym?

“Intimidated and nervous” is how veteran leader Brady Walkinshaw ’06 described himself as a freshman. “But the atmosphere leaders create on trips is a fusion of very welcoming and effusive excitement. That’s what integrates you into the group.”

Indeed, somewhere along the trail, the anxiety begins to melt away. Freshmen realize that they share many of the same concerns. Leaders address questions on everything from academics to eating clubs, sharing wisdom gained in their time on campus.

“They talked about the way things worked and filled us in on the details of Princeton life that no one knows ahead of time,” Thomas Curry ’08 said of his leaders.

Curtis proudly noted that a survey of freshmen at Princeton and Harvard, which runs a similar program, found that students who participated in wilderness orientation trips reported a better social fit on campus than those who did not.

“You have this network of friends, and Princeton starts to exist for you and people you know,” said Curry of his return to campus after OA. “You feel more a part of a place you haven’t experienced yet.”

[A senior Outdoor Action leader was airlifted to a Philadelphia hospital for treatment of injuries suffered on a trip he was leading. See In Brief, page 14.]


For members of the Class of 2006, the anticipation of reuniting with friends in a familiar place has replaced the nervousness they felt at the doors of Dillon Gym three years ago. But that’s tempered by the strain of theses looming overhead and the recognition that this is their last year at Princeton.

“It was sad to think that this was the last room I would have on campus,” said David Graber ’06. “Especially as a senior, I know there are so many things available that I never had the time for or never took advantage of.”

“I’m trying to remember that I need to really enjoy this year, and not let it blaze by me,” said Nicole Larrea ’06. Larrea, a psychology premed student studying moral reasoning, said that hearing from other seniors who have begun their research has her excited to start her own thesis.

At least for the first few weeks of the semester, however, thesis plans will have to take a backseat to the enjoyment of Indian summer, fall lawn parties, and football tailgates.

“I’m in denial about how much work I have to do and in denial about facing the real world,” said Emily Lammers ’06. “I’m going to enjoy it for a few more weeks and just have fun. This is the last fall I’ll really look forward to — coming back to the perfect autumn days, the whole collegiate atmosphere.

“I’m really jealous of the freshmen,” Lammers added. “I wish it were me all over again.” end of article

Amy Sennett ’06 is an Outdoor Action leader from Milwaukee, Wis.


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