From Sept. 4 to Sept. 12, over 650 of the roughly 1,300 students in the Class of 2021 will embark on their first University adventure — Outdoor Action frosh trips. These five-day orientation expeditions are designed to help incoming students transition smoothly into their first year as undergraduates.
Participating students are assigned to one of seven OA trip types, including backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing, biking, and trail maintenance. Trips are designed to accommodate all skill levels and are composed of eight to 10 students and two or three OA leaders, students who have trained to take on the role.
Beyond diversity of skill level, one of OA’s primary aims is to promote the diversity of the incoming class and current student body. Not only do OA leaders come from a variety of locations and backgrounds, but they also represent various organizations and student interests on campus, such as the Princeton University Glee Club, Mock Trial, Orange Key, Princeton Advocates for Justice, and L’Avant-Scene (Princeton’s French theater troupe), to name a few.
Leaders, as the first mentors and Princeton representatives that first-years get to know, exert strong influences on their trip and can get their frosh involved in organizations that they otherwise would not have joined.
Additional efforts to promote diversity are made in the process of selecting students for different trips.
“OA puts people from different states, backgrounds, and gender identities together, all while keeping people in their requested activity. The thousand or so incoming students are assigned based on a host of criteria,” explained OA leader Julian Castellon ’20. “This used to be done by hand, but an ORFE student in the Great Class of 2017 made it his thesis to create a program that optimally sorts frosh based on those criteria.”
Along with organizing first-years into their OA groups, extensive planning is necessary to guarantee the success of every round of trips. The planning process for this September began immediately as last year’s frosh trips came to a close and has continued into the summer.
“Since the frosh trip involves roughly half of the incoming freshman class, which is typically greater than 500 students, the trip requires a tremendous amount of organization,” said Jivahn Moradian ’20, who will be leading his first frosh trip this fall.
OA Leaders are required to take two courses, Leadership 101 and 102, over either fall or spring break, as well as complete a medical training course called HEART to earn Wilderness First Aid certification. Additional technical skills courses ensure that leaders know how to navigate using maps, tie bear bags of food, set up sleeping tarps, and operate a camp stove. Leaders participate in a final leader training trip to put their skills to the test and finalize their status as OA Leaders.
Beyond equipping leaders with the skills they need to direct trips, preparation for OA also enlists other student roles.
“OA has many different moving parts. There is a lot of work that goes into making sure we have competent leaders to lead the fall trips. To accomplish this we have technical skills trainers, LNT — Leave No Trace — master educators, HEART instructors, CPR instructors, leader trainers, frosh trip coordinators, and our program coordinators Caroline Stone and Rick Curtis. With the exception of Rick and Caroline, these instructors are all students who have done a series of classes, backpacking trips, etc. to prepare for their role,” explained Maggie McCallister ’19, one of four frosh trip coordinators who work with director Rick Curtis ’79 and program coordinator Caroline Stone ’14.
Despite the complexity of the operation and the considerable number of positions to fill, OA consistently draws a large number of motivated volunteers.
“We have almost 300 frosh trip leaders, and about 40 more people on support and command ... but I’d say we have at least 400 affiliated students,” FTC Valerie Wilson ’18 said.
Details are carefully coordinated months in advance to ensure that incoming students are safe and enjoy the experience.
“It’s an amazing amount of coordination and logistics,” described OA leader Maggie Pecsok ’18. “The FTCs go on scouting trips to check out new routes, plan every single trip, and coordinate all the food ordering. There’s also permits to think about.”
Planning culminates in “pretrip,” an intense five-day refresher course that OA leaders complete at the end of August before leaving for frosh trips.
“It’s crazy right before pretrip when we finally line up all the food boxes and you realize what a massive operation it is,” Pecsok added.
Despite the commitment that OA requires, all students involved have voluntarily chosen to participate, a reflection of the OA motto, “challenge by choice!” Leaders and organizers alike are energized by the growth and organic relationships that result from a simple week in the woods.
“There’s nothing like the feeling of being in nature for five days, away from technology and the busyness of the world we live in. It’s completely different from anything at Princeton. It’s an amazing experience as a freshman, especially if you haven’t done any camping before, and, to paraphrase a website I once read: ‘You’ll never be freer than when you’re out on the trail,’” Wilson said.
Indeed, the simplicity of OA has provided the foundation for camaraderie and friendship in more cases than one.
“A favorite memory of mine was the laughter that happened when we weren’t so consumed by our phones. People would say ridiculous things, tell even more ridiculous stories, have geography contests, and tell some of the worst jokes I've ever heard. But because you're in the woods, with the only human contact being the seven, eight or so people around you, everything is funny. In a way, everything is more beautiful,” leader Catherine Song ’20 recounted about her own frosh trip. Song will be leading her first trip this September.
At the end of the day, OA leaders and organizers are, first and foremost, committed to the cohort of incoming students.
“One thing that Director Curtis reminds us of when we’re training is to ‘make the trip frosh-centric.’ The goal isn’t necessarily for the leader to have the best time of their life, or for support to feel valued; it’s really about the frosh feeling valued,” FTC Will Nolan ’19 said.
For freshmen with lingering nerves or any remaining traces of concern, leader and leader trainer Will Atkinson ’18 said, “We’ve got your back. So be open, ask questions, share stories, break in your hiking boots, and get excited! It’s going to be a blast.”