Three years ago, I sat on a bus watching cars, exit signs and trees flash by while my mind was racing. I was sure that one of my frosh had forgotten their boots. Or the tarp. Or maybe a stove. Or could one have forgotten their entire pack? The list grew longer and longer as I remembered each vital piece of gear that might have been forgotten. After I checked for the third time to make sure the med kit was at my feet, I realized that I needed to take a breath. I was one of about 200 leaders that venture into the great outdoors with incoming freshmen before school begins in September. Princeton’s Outdoor Action program is part orientation, part adventuring and part personal journey. The orientation and adventuring are perhaps the most obvious, but it is the personal journey that has been the most unexpected takeaway in my time as an OA leader. Each year, I expect to have a different group of frosh, different co-leaders and a different route, but it is only in reflection that I can really see myself changing over the course of those trips as well.
“No experience necessary” is a coveted trope in the world of Princeton activities and extracurriculars. Though ideologically attractive and inclusive, a more realistic version might read, “No experience necessary if you also possess prodigious natural talent and affinity.” This sets a high bar and creates an environment that flourishes with talent, but it also can deter exploration into fields whose skills do not come so effortlessly. Outdoor Action departs from the Princeton norm in this respect. If you are willing to undergo the training — medical, technical and interpersonal — then you are capable of becoming an OA leader. The program is designed for exposure and learning experiences that are predicated on the individual struggling with the application of knowledge. Training to be an OA leader isn’t dependent on outside expertise but rather on choosing to jump into a new environment, while also being the person responsible for providing everything needed to thrive in that environment.
The skills themselves depart from the norm of academia that I have felt surrounded by at Princeton. The knowledge acquired isn’t meant to be applied theoretically or in a paper or equation but rather tangibly performed and used in “real time” in the “real world.” It’s not just about memorizing the process of splinting and then enumerating the steps on a paper but rather grappling with creating that splint and actually putting concepts into practice. During training, when you do not abide by the rule to move forward on the trail even after someone is stung by a yellow jacket (what to do to avoid disturbing a potential nest), a swarm of yellow jackets do not then hypothetically swarm the pack you proceed to accidentally drop on top of their nest. In reality, what they actually do is swarm the pack for the next fifteen minutes as you attempt to retrieve it and finally resort to donning full rain gear (acquired from your frosh since yours is in the pack under attack) to protect yourself as much as possible. Work at Princeton can revolve around the theoretical, and it is refreshing to grapple with skills that have direct and immediate results, even when those results aren’t necessarily want you want.
Beyond the skills and techniques that make up becoming a leader, actually leading is at the core of OA. It wasn’t until this past year that I really saw what it meant to be freshmen’s first contact with Princeton as an OA leader. Over the course of three years, I certainly saw specific and unique personalities, but I also saw the consistent questions and fears and concerns that surround coming to Princeton. And in the return to those uncertainties each fall, I saw the progression of my own navigation and understanding of Princeton. Conversations about feeling out of place and undeserving at Princeton grew from places of personal experience, as did reassurances of the relationships and friendships that would be built and dispel the insecurities. Discussions about Princeton’s social life drew on the flawed realities but also the unforgettable moments. Leading merges the individual experience and the collective and has been a foundational Princeton experience for me.
My time leading has come to a close, but I can only hope that next year and the year after and on and on, someone will be sitting on that bus, craning their head to triple check boots, and preparing to embark as a leader on their first Frosh Trip.