Westminster College’s Outdoor Experience orientation may give first-year students the opportunity to make friends, overcome fears and get outside before classes start.
It may also help retention. Statistics for 2015 from the Outdoor Program show 89 percent of students who attended Outdoor Experience orientation returned their second year, compared to the college average of 82 percent.
“To go on a trip with a bunch of people who are in the same stage of life as you with all the same uncertainties is really nice,” said Bridger Layton, a senior Outdoor Experience leader who participated in the trip his first year of college. “You’ve got this perfect setting to start making new friends and connections. Then, when you get back to campus when everyone else is trying to connect with people and trying to make new friends, you’ve already got some familiar faces.”
The Outdoor Program started the Outdoor Experience orientation in 2009 with one multi-sport trip. The program has now grown to five trips, including two multi-sport trips, a backpacking trip, a pack-rafting trip and a trip in collaboration with the Legacy Scholars program, which focuses on the integration of first generation and underrepresented students.
Outdoor Experience is designed to ease incoming students’ transition to college by creating a community where they can grow relationships, build leadership-skills and overcome fears about college, according to the organization’s website.
Past participants in the Outdoor Experiences said they gained a lot from the trips.
“Once classes start, your life gets really busy [and] you don’t really have time to go and socialize as much as you would before,” said Caelan Pike Meter, a sophomore outdoor education and leadership major. “Having an opportunity before classes even get started to meet people on quite a deep level — you go out in the woods with them for almost a week — that gives you an opportunity to meet some people that could be really good friends.”
Participants of Outdoor Experience, which is in addition to the mandatory first-year orientation, also said they felt they had a head start coming into their first week.
“I definitely made more friends on my Outdoor Experience trip than I did [in] my orientation group,” Meter said. “The normal orientation is just too rushed and we have too much to do. I didn’t get as much time to actually know the people I was with.”
Several GO Leaders, who run student orientation, also said they think the extra orientation is helpful.
“They already know a couple people on campus and seem more comfortable knowing they will have a place,” said Rikki Holman, a GO Leader and senior art major. “Other students who are coming to Westminster’s campus for possibly the first time don’t have that reassurance yet, so you can still see the nerves versus those who have already made some roots on campus.”
Students and alumni working in the Outdoor Program said they’d like to see the Outdoor Experiences grow.
“I always wish we could accommodate more people because we always have a waitlist,” said Zoey Gray, an Outdoor Experience leader and senior public health major. “That’s a bummer for people who want to be there but can’t.”
Though there may be a wait list, the program isn’t sure how much more expansion is feasible.
“Right now we’re at a place that we would have to get creative on how to grow,” said Tiana White, head of the Outdoor Program. “The college doesn’t have the space, the money or the vehicles to support much more growth.”
Despite the waitlist, several students and alumni said they didn’t hear about the program, which the college promotes with a mailer in April and through Griffin Gear Ups.
For those students who didn’t hear about Outdoor Experience in time to attend, the first Outdoor Program trip of the semester to Idaho’s City Of Rocks is open exclusively to first-year students.