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Into the Wild

NOC Ropes 2010When I was in graduate school, little did I imagine that part of my job as an English professor on the tenure-track would involve whitewater rafting, hiking, or a ropes course. And yet, earlier this summer, I found myself doing exactly those things: paddling down a 55 degree river, sweating on a 5.5 mile hike, and launching myself off a 40-foot tower supported only by a cable and harness.

This is the third year that my college has offered its Summer Orientation and Advising Program (SOAP), which offers incoming students the opportunity to come to campus for a few days in June to meet other members of their class and begin to become a part of the campus community. While here, they can choose to participate in one of three different programs: Summer Serve, Summer Scene, or Summer Adventure. Summer Serve students work with the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. Summer Scene students participate in arts activities both on campus and in the local community. Summer Adventure students (and I!) travelled a couple of hours north of campus to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) to hike, raft, and participate in team-building exercises on a ropes course.

The benefits for incoming students perhaps seem obvious. They get to meet each other and make friends before the semester arrives. They might find a roommate if they don’t have one in mind already, and they get better acquainted with the campus community—or at least a part of it—before packing up and moving in. Plus, they get to participate in some fun activities with others who share their interests.

But why would a tenure-track faculty member decide to set aside her research agenda for a precious few days in order to swat mosquitoes, sweat up a storm, haul herself up and across various wire contraptions with a group of 22 other women, most of them 17 and 18 years old (Converse, where I teach, is a women’s college)?

It’s a good question, but it’s one I didn’t think to ask myself when I was invited to participate in the trip, when I accepted the invitation, or even when I was dangling from a wire some 30 feet in the air. To my mind, the only question was this: why wouldn’t I go?

Faculty at small liberal arts colleges often find themselves presented with such opportunities. Well, maybe not all of them find themselves walking across a tightrope 20 feet off the group belayed by potential students and/or advisees. . . . But most of us find ourselves in unique learning experiences with our students outside of the classroom. These experiences can greatly enhance our relationships with our students and foster a unique educational experience. Indeed, they are often one of the main reasons that students choose to attend a liberal arts school, and they are certainly one of my favorite parts of my job.

And yet, the prospect of confronting my own fear of heights as part of such an experience was one that made me more than a little nervous. I was fine with the whitewater rafting and the hiking, even when one of my hiking boots lost its sole (the entire thing!) with about a mile and a half to go on our hike. The ropes course was another story. We each had our choice between a 20- and a 40-foot circuit, these being 20 or 40 feet high, not 20 or 40 feet in length. Whichever height we chose, we would end up at the top of a 40-foot tower where we were hooked into a rather heavy cable and had to swing out into space, free-falling about 10 feet before the harness “caught” us. From the get-go, I knew that the 40-foot course was not an option for me, though most of the students opted for its greater glory. Twenty feet didn’t seem that high from the ground, but it looked very different once I was up there, so I tried my best not to look down. And yet, somehow I made my way through and managed to stay on the course. In fact, everyone gave it a try, and even those who were visibly terrified pushed themselves to try and overcome their fears.

But what was most rewarding about the entire experience was watching the students begin to bond and come out of their shells. I had met a few of the students at various admissions activities during the previous spring, but most of the faces that greeted me around the campfire our first night were new. Most of them came on the trip not knowing any of the other participants; many of them were excited, and more than a few of them were nervous about being out of their comfort zones and away from their family and friends. Some of them were naturally extroverted and had little trouble participating in our team-building activities and discussions, but others were shy and clearly more comfortable with the physical challenges of the trip than the interpersonal ones. But whatever our own personal challenges, we all overcame them thanks to these shared adventures. By the end of the trip, we all not only knew each others’ names, but we actually had learned a good bit about each other: where we grew up, what we ate for breakfast, and what scared us: whether that was heights, snakes, or moving away from home to start college. Some were anxious about participating in collegiate athletics while others were dealing with the illness of a loved one.

I hadn’t had much experience with the Student Life side of campus before this summer. I had happily participated in many of their events over the last few years, but accompanying them on this trip really helped me to appreciate their role on a college campus. These students not only got to build friendships and find roommates, but they also gave themselves a big jumpstart on the fall semester. They’ve gotten to know a few key personnel in Campus Life as well as a couple members of the faculty and a few current students. Hopefully, some of the nerves and anxiety that are an inevitable part of the first few weeks of the semester for all new students will be tempered by the summer orientation experience and the relationships that it helped to build.

Some of these students will be my advisees; others of them may end up in one of my classes. Even if I don’t see them in the classroom in September, I will certainly see them on campus at various events and functions, and thanks to a few days spent in the woods with several members of our incoming class, I’m also looking forward to fall semester even more than usual.

Does your institution have summer orientation programs for incoming students? Are there opportunities for faculty to participate, and if so, have you? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

[Photo by Monica McCoy]

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