On the Campus...
11 , 2000:
freshmen gather in the woods
How Outdoor Action sets the tone for the Princeton
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
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
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
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 email@example.com