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College Outdoor Orientation Programs

Rick Curtis
Article Date:  May 12, 2013

Over the past twenty years wilderness orientation programs (WO) have expanded across the country. From colleges to secondary schools and now graduate programs have turned to this successful format to integrate new students to the campus. At the same time the role of the University is changing and as we enter into the new millennium, wilderness orientation programs will have to adapt to new roles.

Current Program Goals

Each school will have different goals based on the population served, age of the participants, the size of the school, the type of school (secondary, college, professional), etc. The following are some of the goals used by other WO.[2]

They expect to share in decision-making; many of them are a lot more savvy than their parents were as college students. Colleges go back to in loco parentis with these kids. The end of the generational cold war, however, can open a new period for colleges, one we can call cum parentibus, in which parents and their children work together on ways for young people to complete the last stage of adolescence.

Other factors are spurring suits, the lawyers say: Universities are usually rich defendants; students are often in debt. Injured students without health insurance sometimes feel they need to sue to recoup medical expenses.

Some university lawyers say these factors have created a ?feeding frenzy? of litigation on campuses?.He notes another paradox. If colleges decide to regulate student behavior more tightly, the courts will have more reason to find colleges liable when accidents occur.in loco parentis relationship that students two decades ago fought to change.”[8] [10]

One of the challenges of the millennium for college outdoor programs is to find ways that we can be seen as furthering the goals and objectives of the college. These are all valuable contributions to campus life:

  • Retention

  • Leadership development

  • Teaching personal responsibility

  • Enhancing communication and listening skills

  • Building an ethic of service

  • Developing a conservation ethic

  • Developing a healthy life style

  • Building life-long recreation skills

  • Providing substance-free social option

  • Connecting outdoor education to the curriculum

  • Peer education program

  • Diversity and Multiculturalism

  • Learning about dorm living

  • Becoming part of a diverse community

  • Learning about Pluralistic Ignorance

  • Education on responsible use of alcohol

Shrinking Budgets

The ?big spending? days of the eighties are over. Decreases in federal funding and declining enrollment in college have created new problems for colleges and universities. Schools now compete more than ever to both attract and keep students. Schools across the country have undergone major ?belt-tightening? on budgets. All of this while costs continue to rise. In this new climate, wilderness orientation programs have to be able to show how the contribute to life on campus.

What Lies Ahead?

As we look ahead to 2000 and beyond, it is clear that WO programs can and should have new impacts on incoming students. I propose an expanded version of O?Keefe?s goal areas to reflect the new directions WO programs should move in. With these new goal areas, individual colleges will focus on those which are most appropriate for their campus. Some examples are included in each area.




  • Develop positive interaction with faculty
  • Connect wilderness orientation to academic curriculum

Connection to College

  • Develop peer identity
  • Gain information about college

Environmental Stewardship

  • Learn Leave No Trace practices
  • Develop an conservation ethic

Personal Growth

  • Adjust and mature
  • Enhance decision-making skills
  • Increase personal initiative


  • Develop a service orientation

Social Skills

  • Establish friendships
  • Learn small group skills
  • Reduce stereotyping
  • Develop small group problem-solving skills


  • Retention
  • Community & Civility
  • Diversity education
  • Alcohol education
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Hazing
  • Violence

‘The Academy’ = Academic

Whatever institution you are a part of, one mantra runs pretty much universally throughout higher education: academic training is the primary mission of the institution. From the word go, that relegates most WO programs to the second tier of ?student support services.? However, WO programs can provide unique connections to ?the academic side of the house.? This will become a more important justification for WO programs as we move into the new millennium.

Faculty Connections

Faculty participation in WO programs is limited. In part this is due to increased demands on faulty and the changes that took place in the original swing away from in loco parentis. Thirty years ago faculty served much more as adult mentors, directly relating to students. This has changed and encouraging faculty to take time away from their research, teaching, and personal life to participate in a WO program is increasingly difficult without strong support from the university administration. What is clear is that programs that involve faculty create a unique ?out-of-classroom? experience for students where faculty are seen as ?partners in education? rather than as ?lecturer/grader.? This is a positive step, which could encourage more investment in learning from students. Evaluating the effects of faculty involvement is a key area for future research.

Academic Initiatives

WO programs also provide a unique environment for a variety of academic experiences. Whether it is exposing students to writing, natural history, biology, geology, history, or other topics, the setting of a WO and the supportive small group environment are conducive to exploring short-term academic topics. This can serve as an introduction to the academic rigor expected at a university, an exploration of a particular academic topic, or a survey of potential courses of study.

Most college outdoor programs are not part of the academic curriculum. Students may commit considerable time to the program and receive no academic credit for it. Colleges are increasingly viewing experiential learning models including service learning as an approach to integrate into the curriculum. Outdoor programs can also provide unique educational opportunities that connect to the student?s academic life. Cooperative programming with departments like Biology, Geology, Teacher Education, etc. can create courses that link outdoor activities and training into mainstream classroom activities.

Freshmen Seminar Program at Princeton

The Freshman Seminar Program offers first-year students the opportunity to work in a small-group setting with a professor on a topic of special interest. Seminars are limited in size to 15 students, who are selected on the basis of a short essay application. Each seminar is hosted by a residential college and the seminar, in turn, contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the college. Class discussions often continue over meals or in other informal settings at the college. The seminars, in conjunction with the colleges, frequently sponsor special events, such as film series, guest lectures, or cultural excursions to museums or the theater.

Freshman seminars count as regular courses, and most fulfill a distribution requirement. Each year, a number of the seminars also satisfy the University writing requirement. Unless specifically indicated in the course description, freshman seminars do not assume prior knowledge or advanced placement in the subject. The seminars depend for their success on the expertise of the professor and on the hard work and enthusiasm of all the participants. Emphasis is on discussion, papers, and in-class presentations rather than on quizzes or exams.

Outdoor Action is currently working with the Dean of the College?s Office to create a series of Freshmen Seminars that include a outdoor component. Proposals for next year include:

  • Winter Ecology: This course would be would be taught by a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department. The course would involve regular class work on Winter Ecology using the textbook Winter Ecology by Dr. James Half Penny as well as other sources. Outdoor Action would provide a series of trainings on winter camping, hypothermia and cross-country skiing skills in February and early March as preparation for the class field trip, a 4-7 day Field Study in Yellowstone National Park with the Yellowstone Institute. Participants would stay in heated cabins in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone and travel each day to different areas of the park studying wildlife winter conditions. Most of each day would be spent on cross-country skis.

  • Wilderness Literature: This course would study the writings on natural history and conservation including Thoreau, Muir, Leopold and other contemporary writers and would be taught by a professor in the English Department. Outdoor Action would provide a series of trainings on basic outdoor skills and several day trips to give students the skills to be comfortable in an outdoor setting. Over Fall Break participants would take part in a 4-5 day Outdoor Action Trip backpacking trip with opportunities for reading, and writing on the topic. An overnight solo camping experience, under supervision of the Outdoor Action Leaders would be part of the trip.  

  • Nature & Spirituality: This course would study the spiritual aspects of nature through the study of a number of works of literature and would be taught by a professor in the Religion Department. Outdoor Action would provide a series of trainings on basic outdoor skills and several day trips to give students the skills to be comfortable in an outdoor setting. Over Fall Break participants would take part in a 4-5 day Outdoor Action Trip backpacking trip with opportunities for reading, and writing on the topic.  

Diversity & Inclusion

Perhaps no other single issue is as difficult to get a handle on. What do we mean by diversity? Is it having a diverse group of participants? A diverse leadership staff? A program that is seen as open and accessible to all students? How do we define diversity:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Class
  • Ability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Spirituality

  If you approach the issue of diversity/inclusion you must do so by carefully examining the core values of your program that lie underneath this goal. Diversity simply for the sake of diversity, or that ?it?s something we should do? is hollow and, moreover, self-serving. It may be based on ?white-man?s burden? rather than a fundamental belief that the experience that we offer is a positive experience of personal growth that can be of benefit to all communities.

Reasons for Inclusion

  • Client-base is diverse ? providing role models and increased support to your client base.
  • Core values of the program are based on personal growth and development. Therefore the experience should be available/accessible/attractive to the entire client community or as mush as possible (for example providing certain activities for people with differing abilities may be beyond the scope of the paraprofessional operation of most college outdoor programs).
  • Cross-cultural interaction is seen as a core value of the program. We must realize that, for many< outdoor education is, in fact, a cross-cultural experience for them. We must provide the necessary support and resources for people to make the leap across a cross-cultural boundary. At the same time, we must be willing to make our own leaps across into other cultures to understand and appreciate them.

Roads to Inclusion

  • Accessibility
    • Economic ? fee structure, financial aid
    • Equipment
    • Activity levels
    • Programs for Differently-abled
  • Outreach
    • Communication
    • Marketing
    • Cooperative Programming
  • Cross-cultural Immersion


Leadership is service. Teaching students leaders that they are in a service role is important to their development as responsible members of their college community and to society at large. Being a contributing member of a community means being in service to others. One of the challenges for college outdoor programs for the new millennium is to develop community service activities that include outdoor and experiential education.

Environmental Stewardship

Programs typically teach students the techniques for Leave No Trace camping in the outdoors. Our highly industrialized society consumes the vast quantity of the earth?s resources and generates the greatest levels of pollutants. College students will graduate into a world that must carefully examine fundamental changes in the way we use and misuse finite resources as well as the value of protecting wilderness land. WO trips serve as a micro-society where individual behavior does have a direct effect on the surrounding environment. With carefully thought-out curriculum, these lessons can be extended back onto campus to support concern for the environment on campus and beyond. By creating concerned citizens the University prepares the next generation to deal with the complex problems they will need to face.

Leadership Training & Development

The major focus of wilderness orientation programs is the impact that these experiences have on incoming students. An often-overlooked population is the upperclass students, who, in the vast majority of programs serve as the trip leaders. In most schools these students receive training in group dynamics and facilitation, outdoor leadership, wilderness skills, and first aid. Leading a group in the wilderness and facilitating positive group interaction and personal development is a significant responsibility. Student leaders grow immensely through this process and their leadership and interpersonal skills are also utilized in the dormitories and in other campus activities.

Other Populations

Brown Outdoor Leadership Training (BOLT)

The BOLT program at Brown University has taken a different approach to wilderness orientation. Rather than focus on incoming students, BOLT works with upperclass students.

?BOLT is a program uniquely designed to bring together sophomores and provide them with a shared outdoor experience followed by a year of continued group activities. For many Brown students, the sophomore year is a difficult period of transition from the camaraderie of the first year to the increasing independence of the next several years. As sophomores assume greater responsibility for the direction of their college experiences, they often struggle with significant personal and academic questions. The beginning of the year is a good time for sophomores to reflect on their first year experience, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and formulate new

personal and academic goals.

The year-round aspect of the program gives sophomores an opportunity for continued reflection and reassessment of themselves and their personal development at Brown. This process of self-reflection and evaluation is a preliminary step in learning how to function more efficiently and to take initiative in a group setting. Brown1s unique curriculum tends to attract students who are self-starters. Nevertheless, even the most individualistic of students needs to be able to function within a group structure.?[12]         

The Frosh Trip had a positive effect on the Frosh Group with regard to their anxiety, social fit and party scores and in their general adaptation to Princeton.  As stated above, the self-anxiety score decreased after the trip indicating that the trip is effective at alleviating some anxiety associated with coming to college.  This decreasing anxiety could be a result of the change in social fit scores after the trip.  Before going into the trip, the participants in the Frosh Group think that they are not going fit in as well as the typical student, but after the trip this measure is reversed and Frosh think that they are going to fit in better than the typical student.  Even though the change in the self-other discrepancy is small, the significance is in the fact that discrepancy is negative before the trip and then positive afterwards.  This is strong evidence that the Frosh Trip is effective in helping freshmen adapt to Princeton.

Further evidence that the Frosh Trip is effective in helping freshmen fit into Princeton social scene can be found in the change of party scores as a result of the trip.  The Frosh Group comes to Princeton with a huge self-other discrepancy in regard to their attitudes towards partying and drinking.  After the trip, this discrepancy is significantly reduced and the Post-Trip discrepancy level is maintained until April.  What?s even more interesting is that the large decrease in the self-other discrepancy is caused by a decrease in the perception of others and not an increase in the individual?s behavior.

Prentice and Miller (1993) demonstrated that when males are confronted with a self-other discrepancy they will change their behavior to be in line with the perceived norm.  If the norm is a level of drinking above what the individual is comfortable with (as the case is) than the individual will increase their amount of drinking to be more in line with the norm.  The Frosh Trip, however, is causing the opposite to happen.  Freshmen come into the Trip thinking that everyone else is going to party much more than they are.  After the trip, they have acted to decrease this discrepancy, but not by moving their behavior in the direction of the norm.  Instead, the Frosh Trip helps freshmen to realize that their misperceptions are wrong and to bring their perceptions of others more in line with their behavior.  By bringing their perception of the typical student in line with their behavior, freshmen are correcting a norm that would have influenced them to drink more than they were comfortable with.  In effect, the Frosh Trip is reducing alcohol use by correcting freshmen?s misperception of the alcohol norm on campus.

The proposed mechanism responsible for the changes in the self-other discrepancy on social fit and party scores is the same, so it will be discussed jointly.  The Frosh Trip is an environment where students are exposed to the concept of pluralistic ignorance.  They may not know what it?s called and the leaders have not been trained in exposing it, but through the natural course of a trip misperceived norms are corrected.  Discussions on Frosh Trips have a wide variety, but it is almost certain that at some point the group will discuss people?s anxiety about fitting into the social scene and alcohol use on campus.  If students feel comfortable enough, they will let down their false exterior and voice their true opinions.  As in Schroeder and Prentice (in press) the illusion of universality surrounding the misperceived norms will be broken, and freshmen will see that they are less different from the other freshmen than they originally thought.

Comparing the self-other discrepancies on party and social fit scores for all three groups at the Pre-Trip and Follow-up time periods allow for (a) the adaptation of the Frosh Group to be compared to that of the control groups, and (b) the Frosh Trip?s influence on this adaptation to be investigated.  The fact that the change in the self-other discrepancy on social fit from the Pre-Trip to the Follow-up for the Frosh and Wait-List Groups was not statistically different points to self-selection as the cause of the decrease in the self-other discrepancy on social fit.  If these score had been different, then the trip could be labeled as the cause, but since the change in both groups was statistically the same, this conclusion is invalid.   There is evidence, however, that would allow one to speculate that the Frosh Trip did have an effect in changing social fit scores regardless of self-selection.  The follow-up social fit score for the Frosh Group is positive, whereas, the Wait-List?s social fit score is negative.  This means that in April, the Frosh Group thinks that they fit in better than the typical student, whereas the Wait-List Group thinks they fit in worse than the typical student.  Further and closer experimentation is required to show what effect the Frosh Trip has on changing social fit.

The Frosh Trip?s effect on attitudes toward drinking is much clearer than its effect on social fit.  The Frosh Group?s change in self-other discrepancy from September to April, is both significantly different that the Wait-List and (No pre-orientation activity) NPRO Groups and much more negative.  A large negative score on this measure means that there was a large decrease in the self-other discrepancy from September to April.  It should be noted that part of the reason that the Frosh Group has such a large decrease in their self-other discrepancy is because their initial expectations show a huge self-other discrepancy.  This, however, doesn?t discount the fact that the Frosh Trip brought the participant?s perceptions more in line with reality; correcting for a gross misperception of the partying and drinking norm.

Secondly, students who do not participate in any pre-registration orientation program are at a high risk of not fitting in socially and misperceiving the drinking norm on campus.  The NPRO Group entered Princeton with a large self-other discrepancy on social fit and this discrepancy had increased by April.  This is worrying because neither the Frosh Group nor the Wait-List group had in increase in the self-other discrepancy on social fit.  The NPRO group not only thinks they are not going to fit in as well as the typical student in September, but by April they think they fit even less well.  In party scores also, the NPRO Group had the largest self-other discrepancy in April.  These results indicate that students who do not want to participate in pre-registration orientation programs have a high tendency to misperceive social norms.  In this case, the misperception of the norms lead to a sense of not fitting in and a belief that their attitudes toward alcohol are deviant to a large degree.  The mal-adaptation experienced by the NPRO Group would suggest that all freshmen should participate in some type of pre-registration orientation program in order to correct for any misperceptions of norms they may be experiencing.

Table 1

Frosh Group?s Ratings of Own and Typical Student?s (Other) Social Fit




Self-Other Discrepancy

Frosh Pre-Trip










Frosh Post-Trip










Frosh Follow-up










Table 2

Frosh Group?s Ratings of Own and Typical Student?s (Other) Desire to Party




Self-Other Discrepancy

Frosh Pre-Trip










Frosh Post-Trip










Frosh Follow-up











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