Web Exclusives:

On the Campus...

October 11 , 2000:

When 711 freshmen gather in the woods
How Outdoor Action sets the tone for the Princeton experience

by Alex Rawson '01

On hundred, forty-eight upperclassmen sit in groups of twos and threes, pounding the floor in Dillon Gym and chanting "Freshmen! Freshmen!" while 583 members of the Class of 2004 stand huddled nervously outside the entrance.

Then suddenly, without warning, the freshmen are ushered into the gym to meet their leaders for the Outdoor Action trip upon which they are about to embark. I remember the feeling when I was a freshman, and now I can see the same fear, bewilderment, and uncertainty stamped openly upon the face of quite nearly every person entering the gym.

It is a fear of newness, it is a fear of the stereotypes that each of them holds about Princeton, and most of all it is a fear of not fitting in at a place they can not yet call home.

While these fears and uncertainties are quite natural and are in most cases probably even productive, in too many cases they are manifested in character changes on campus. Over the past four years I have watched far too many freshmen change, or worse, ignore, their fundamental values in the belief that they have to behave a certain way in order to fit in at Princeton.

Some people simply drink more, others see study habits suffer, and priorities shift altogether too fast. And I'm sure this has been true of freshmen for decades. But it is nevertheless a scary and undesirable transformation - especially if students change their identity only because they believe they have to.

Outdoor Action, begun in 1974, works to preempt that change by easing freshmen into the transition to college. While OA runs a variety of outdoor trips year round under the guidance of program director Rick Curtis '79, by far its largest and farthest reaching is the annual frosh trip. The frosh trip sends groups of eight to 10 freshmen into the wilderness with two or three upperclass leaders, where in the often uncomfortable crucible of the outdoors, trip participants drop their guards and their artifices and openly face their concerns about Princeton.

OA, which since its inception has grown to nearly 600 participants (more than half the freshmen class) and more than 140 leaders annually, is the very first contact that freshmen have with Princeton, and ultimately serves as the first real step in the orientation process. As a consequence, OA plays two complementary roles for its frosh.

First, each freshman develops seven or eight new friendships that make campus a much more comfortable place to be once school officially begins. One recent participant explains, "The [trip] was helpful to me in that it lessened my fears about the social scene at Princeton - getting to know nine wonderfully interesting and caring people."

Second, freshmen on Outdoor Action trips have the opportunity to hear upperclassmen respond to their fears about college, in most cases alleviating them. "I had already in a sense oriented myself to Princeton life through my leaders' guidance," writes another recent participant, "and I felt that my adjustment to campus life was that much smoother."

Spending close to six days in the woods, facing challenges together, and forming bonds through mutual hardship, freshmen return to campus feeling more confident about Princeton and more comfortable with the way they fit in.

In many cases freshmen return bolstered by the knowledge that they can continue to be the same person they have always been and still find a niche on campus. And that knowledge, which prevents the kind of radical personality changes described above, is invaluable.

The university administration spends considerable time and money focusing on ways to curb alcohol abuse and to improve student life, but administrative edicts and even programs that are merely viewed as administrative pet projects are often unwelcome and rarely achieve results.

The frosh trip, on the other hand, simply by promoting self-awareness and self-confidence, already does on many levels what the administration is trying to accomplish both in terms of alcohol and in terms of basic freshman orientation, and it does so without ever being didactic or condescending. As a result, the university would do well to invest in expanding the Outdoor Action program.

Alex Rawson, a history major, is from Shaker Heights, Ohio. He can be reached at ahrawson@princeton.edu