Welcome to college. Now take a hike.

More schools find that wilderness-orientation programs help first-year students get off to a strong start - and join in the community.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For two weeks this September, one building on the Dartmouth College campus has had music blaring constantly as students in wild costumes and multihued hair dance and lead games.

It's not a return to "Animal House," the movie that branded Dartmouth as a party school, or even a start-of-school celebration. Instead, 135 energetic volunteers have been putting in long days to welcome the newest crop of Dartmouth students - and to ease them into their college experience with a five-day, preorientation wilderness trip.

The program, which began with a group of first-years who met to hike in 1935, is the oldest and largest of college wilderness orientations in the United States. But today, any number of public and private colleges have decided that rock climbing or canoeing together can help first-year students make a strong start.

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Some programs stick to basics like making new friends and answering questions about everything from dorm life to course requirements. But many schools are also looking seriously at the positive effect such efforts can have on other aspects of campus life - alcohol abuse, diversity, and improving schools' retention rates.

Rick Curtis, director of Princeton's Outdoor Action program, in which about half of new students participate, calls these more-developed programs the "second generation" of wilderness orientation. "Universities are beginning to look at them as a real resource," says Mr. Curtis.

At Dartmouth, the trips have become a rite of passage. Close to 90 percent of the class of 2004 - 946 students - will participate. Students choose from a range of options, including hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, organic farming, and horseback riding. Two nights of camping are sandwiched between a night on campus and a night up at Mt. Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, in the White Mountains.

Arriving first-years, who are often anxious and reserved, are greeted by the boisterous Hanover Crew - a motley collection of wildlyclad upperclassmen who teach the Salty Dog Rag (an old dance that is now a tradition) and scramble to meet everyone's needs.

Up at Moosilauke Lodge, crew members have earned a reputation for flamboyance. Each night, they serve dinner to two shifts of 70 first-years and leaders. Dressed to the hilt in gold lam, polyester, and leopard-print suits, they leap up on the fireplace and dance and sing through the meal.

"Corn and salad, served for the very first time!" they croon to the tune of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." They'll repeat the show 18 times over the course of the staggered trips schedule. Later, the student director, the first-year dean, the college president, and several upperclassmen strike a somewhat more serious note in a series of talks.

Be yourself

There's a purpose in the zany atmosphere, says Earl Jette, who is retiring this year after 30 years with Outdoor Programs. "It says, 'be yourself'.... You don't have to put on any airs." David Hooke, adviser to the program, agrees: "Because everything has a ritual and fun aspect to it, it makes people forget their worries.... The rules of common life are temporarily suspended to open peoples' eyes and mind to the possibility of something new."

Indeed, many Hanover crew members comment on the transformation they see between when "trippees" first arrive, often worried about "being cool," and when they return to Dartmouth after four days in the woods.

"They're tired, sweaty, gross, and they'll dance with us," says Lauren Foley as she hands out T-shirts.

For crew members, volunteering is a 15-day commitment. But this year, 120 students applied for the 40 spots.

Many point to their own positive experience as trippees as the reason they're eager to contribute. "I felt completely safe to be who I was," says Alan Washington, a sophomore on Hanover crew, about his canoeing trip. Allegra Love, who led a climbing trip this year, recalls, "I was really scared when I came in.... From the second I got off the bus, I felt wanted."

Such experiences have convinced many other colleges to implement wilderness-orientation programs, though often they struggle with varying degrees of support.

But their ability to address serious issues in a fun atmosphere has helped them gain advocates. This year, Princeton University's board of trustees, concerned about binge drinking on the New Jersey campus, helped with funding. Studies last year indicated that going on the wilderness trips helped dispel myths about extensive drinking. As a result, leaders were trained to focus on the issue. "The same process [students] use to make decisions on the trail, they can use at a party when someone hands them a drink," says Curtis.

In Durham, N.H., the University of New Hampshire first offered its "summer fireside experience" for incoming students in 1982. Michael Gass, coordinator of the program and a professor of kinesiology, conducted research on the effect the program had on retention rates, grades, and social and emotional well being. He discovered significant improvement in all areas.

Well-run wilderness programs are effective, Mr. Gass says, because they combine an unfamiliar situation with a "rigorous learning environment." In addition to smoothing the transition to college, Gass says UNH's program also helps students reevaluate their goals and realize the importance of a support system.

Broadening the appeal

But the wilderness can be intimidating for some. The 10 percent who choose not to participate in Dartmouth's program each year are disproportionately urban and minority. This year Ben Miller, trips director and a Dartmouth senior, actively recruited leaders from minority and extracurricular groups, and adjusted the language in the introductory letter to make the trips more inviting.

Other schools, including Harvard University and Lewis and Clark College, have added urban service options to appeal to a wider range of students. And Western State College, a small public school in Gunnison, Colo., that struggles with a 58 percent first-year retention rate and a perception of poor academics, began a wilderness-based orientation two years ago to address both issues.

While Dartmouth also hopes to combat more-weighty problems like binge drinking - Ms. Foley comments on the contrast between the party atmosphere of official orientation and the drug- and alcohol-free nature of trips - the trips primarily are a welcome into a tight community.

For Luis Carrio, a first-year from New York, the experience changed his outlook: "It wasn't what I expected at all. When I first got here, I was worried I had made the wrong choice coming to Dartmouth. After [my trip], I'm so psyched to be here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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