Penn State Freshmen Adapt to College Life Through Outdoor Program Nationwide trend sees students beginning college careers with wilderness orientation

July 19, 2007 (PRLEAP.COM) Education News
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When beginning a college career, young adults all over the country are embarking on a new adventure in life. At some colleges, it starts out just that way—an adventure. Nationwide, it is becoming a popular trend for schools to welcome incoming freshmen through outdoor orientation programs, which often include hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities to ease the angst of starting college.

The award-winning Orion Wilderness Orientation Program at Penn State, named after a notorious constellation of bright stars in the northeast sky that directs travelers, is intended to guide incoming University Park students as they begin the adventures of college. Throughout the six-day program, participants develop bonds with each other and the natural world around them.

“I have seen the amazing difference outdoor education can make in the life of a young person,” said Orion program director Susanne Dubrouillet. “It is very common to see increased self-confidence and pride in learning skills that are perceivably difficult.”

The Orion program, a collaborative effort between Shaver's Creek Environmental Center and Continuing and Distance Education, was established in 1996. Every summer, Orion offers three sessions—each consisting of 60 students split into groups of 10 with two experienced Penn State student leaders per group. This summer’s sessions will be held July 21-26, Aug. 11-16 and Aug. 18-23.

“The groups are composed of students who are experiencing similar feelings of excitement, fear, and nervousness about their great change in life. Orion allows students to meet new people, and in the outdoor setting, personal walls are let down and there is an easier exchange of information that enables a bond to occur among the group members,” Dubrouillet said.

All trips begin and end at Penn State's University Park campus. For four days and nights, students backpack, carrying approximately 30-40 pounds, through the rugged terrain of central Pennsylvania (including the Mid-State Trail and Black Moshannon State Park) and then take part in team building exercises and an additional adventure experience such as rock climbing or canoeing. On the last day, students and instructors gather at the Civil Engineering Lodge at Stone Valley to celebrate their week of success. In a final group ceremony, the students take time to reflect on mental and physical challenges faced during the trip—individually and as a group—and discuss how those challenges will compare to ones they will confront as new students.
“I chose Penn State because of the diverse community and the great number of opportunities that are waiting to be taken advantage of; Orion proved itself as my first opportunity and as the first step to an exciting college career,” said Tyler Noda, a 2006 Orion participant. “I'm so thankful for the experience.” Noda plans to double major in Industrial Engineering and Spanish.

Orion is designed to give students the opportunity to engage in a fun, physically challenging outdoor experience while meeting other incoming students and making new friends. Throughout the trip, students participate in activities designed to foster personal growth, increase confidence and boost self-esteem. The program also seeks to help students increase appreciation for nature, learn environmental-friendly outdoor skills, acquire familiarity with the natural offerings of central Pennsylvania, and set goals for their first year on campus.

“I hope to gain a real appreciation for nature and ‘outdoor living.’ I also hope Orion will encourage me in the future to go into unfamiliar situations that provide a unique educational experience,” said Regan Jaros, an incoming freshman this year. “My mom really encouraged me to sign up, and I thought the whole thing sounded like such a cool adventure, and a great way to meet people and get some credits out of the way! The benefits seem to outweigh the less pleasant aspects of the trip, like the lack of showers and toilets.”

The program counts as a 2-credit course—Kinesiology 089—and therefore students are expected to participate in a positive manner, keep a journal, and write a final paper and a detailed goal statement for their first year. They are also required to participate in a follow-up community service project and attend a wrap-up session. The $195 program fee helps defer costs including transportation, camping gear, and food. Students supply their own personal gear, including a pair of broken-in hiking boots and appropriate clothing.

“The program evaluations are tremendous as are the letters that students and their parents take time to write following the program, but the smiles on that final day are the best reward,” Dubrouillet said.

Over the past 25 years, numerous colleges and universities have incorporated wilderness orientation programs as a rustic approach to integrate new students to campuses. Princeton’s Frosh Trip began in 1974 and for the last seven years, over half of the entire freshman class has participated—making it the largest wilderness orientation program in the country. Dartmouth’s student-run program is also among the largest with nearly 90 percent of its freshmen taking part. It started over 72 years ago, making it the oldest in the country.

Some schools have a different twist to their outdoor programs. For example, Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado aims its Healthy Education for Living Purposefully (H.E.L.P.) program to incoming students with a history of substance use who may need a boost to succeed in college. Staff and faculty conduct the wilderness program and assist students in learning how to face challenges, set goals, and interact with others.

According to Ben Locke, an assistant director in Penn State’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, programs like the one offered at Fort Lewis College help students with substance abuse problems get a fresh start. “One of the reasons that any drug is difficult to stay away from is the people you do it with,” he said. “You have to establish a new peer group with a similar mindset and goals.”
Studies show that outdoor orientation programs, whether targeted to students with a specific issue or to all students, will have meaningful psychological benefits. “Most important is social networking and establishing a transitional mechanism where students can see they are leaving one world and entering a new one with an already established social network,” Locke added. “Issues like depression and anxiety can often times be related to a lack of connection and activity. If you don’t have a well-connected group, then you may feel disconnected and isolated which can then affect your academic performance.” During Adventure WV group discussions at the West Virginia University, students and leaders actually talk about ways to combat homesickness, substance abuse and other issues that may face freshmen.
Locke knows first-hand the benefits of wilderness programs, as he previously served as wilderness trip leader/therapist at Aspen Achievement Academy, which offers a licensed treatment program that combines academics with nature's classroom. Also, as an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, he participated in its version of the Orion program – Fireside Adventure Program.
Locke referred to 17-year study on students who participated in the Fireside program that found first-year wilderness orientation programs have long-term effects. An article in "The Journal of Experiential Education" said half of the participants were contacted for interviews and even 17 years after their experience, participants were consistent in their recollections that the Summer Fireside Experience Program changed their perception of themselves and others and dramatically affected their previously held beliefs. The article stated that the stories of participants meeting new people through the program and how those friendships aided in the initial transition to college were compliant in all interviews and for many, these peer connections became the foundation for life-long friendships. Participants also frequently mentioned how the program changed the direction they took in their lives.

The Fireside orientation program demonstrated that, not only do outdoor orientation programs help students feel much more confident about being in college and having connections, but as Locke adds, “People learn better by ‘doing’ and people can translate things they learn through these kinds of outdoor experiences into the rest of their lives.” For more on the Orion program, visit

Shaver's Creek Environmental Center has for more than 30 years strived to help people and communities learn to live in harmony with our natural environment that supports all life. For more information, visit Shaver's Creek Environmental Center is part of Penn State Outreach, the largest unified outreach organization in American higher education. Penn State Outreach serves more than 5 million people each year, delivering more than 2,000 programs to people in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, all 50 states and 80 countries worldwide.