Dartmouth's way to start college life: a hike in the hills

Rounds of parties with total strangers, new dormitory roommates, boring orientation lectures, confusing maps of campus buildings. Such is the stuff of a typical Orientation Week for freshman entering college.

Instead, imagine a grueling hike on a solitary mountain trail with six other new freshmen and an upperclassman trail guide, ending at a mountain lodge feast with a hundred other freshman.

That's the Dartmouth College version of freshman induction. The freshman trip , as it's called, squeezes into four days what usually takes months, even years, to develop: an esprit de corps and commitment to the school and its traditions.

And school officials reckon such loyalty is part of the reason Dartmouth receives more alumni donations than any other school in the country. This year, 65 percent of Dartmouth graduates contributed to the alumni fund drive.

Dartmouth isn't the only college to offer freshman a wilderness jaunt as a way to kick off college. Harvard, for example, takes a smaller crew to Maine for an Outward Bound-style freshman trip.

''When people enter a new academic environment, the meetings and orientation gimmicks don't always make for the smoothest transition to the new place,'' says Harvard's trip director Vic Henningsen. The purpose of the trip, which is voluntary, is to demand that the new students stretch physically the way they'll have to stretch mentally in their new environment, he says.

''It also assures them of what other people at Harvard are like, which is often what spooks them the most,'' says Henningsen of the contact between freshmen and the upperclassmen who lead the trip. ''It builds the beginnings of a small support network.''

Middlebury College in Vermont and Colby College in Maine also take freshmen on outdoor programs or trips. Most programs are similar in concept to Dartmouth's, but on a smaller scale.

The camaraderie and challenge of mountain hiking make for an entirely different start to the college experience, says Dartmouth trip director Ashley Korenblat, a senior from Little Rock, Ark.

She explains the advantage of striking up friendships among total strangers without the stereotypes that so easily attach themselves back on campus. The trip is timed to be the freshman's very first experience at college.

''There are no preconceptions,'' she says. ''It's just you, the people in your group, and the mountains. And you really get to know them. . . . The group is cemented by the time everyone gets back to the lodge.''

About 900 of Dartmouth's 1,000 incoming freshmen are making the trip this week. Ms. Korenblat spent the summer getting food, transportation, and trail directions for the more than 150 crews that are hitting the White Mountain trails. She also matches the physical fitness of students to the difficulty of the trip activities, including hiking, canoeing, biking, and fishing.

The trip is a 47-year old custom at a school already anchored in tradition. It started with a handful of students hiking the Appalachian Trail, but in the last few years has boomed into a ''must'' for freshman - a time not only to forge enduring friendships, but to learn school lore.

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