Going off to college can be a scary time. For most students, they are leaving home for the first time, leaving their family and friends, some even moving across the country. To help make the process a little easier, the University of Montana Campus Recreation Outdoor Program launched the Freshman Wilderness Experience.
The Outdoor Program, in partnership with the Wilderness Institute, conducts the Freshman Wilderness Experience each August, prior to orientation. The program places groups of incoming freshman on trails and rivers for four days in order to foster peer networks and expose students to all that the Montana wilderness has to offer.
All trips are student led and according to Elizabeth Fricke, the senior assistant director of the Outdoor Program, all leaders go through extensive training prior to the trip’s departure. “Two days before the freshman come in, we have the staff that are running the trips, which are usually juniors and seniors, come in and we will go over leadership skills, risk management training, vehicle training and stuff like that. Then when the new freshman come in, they all do a whole-day orientation on what food they need, what gear they need, getting to know their small groups and various other things before they launch the next morning.”
Fricke explained, student feedback about the trips has been overwhelmingly positive. All participants have loved the opportunity to make new friends prior to starting school. “What a better way to meet new people and having upper classmen lead the trips and advise them in that peer leadership role has been very cool,” said Fricke. “It has been really powerful for students who are participants on the trip, but also for the student staff who lead the trips. It is always great to empower students and see them taking on those leadership roles.”
If you are considering running a similar program, Fricke recommended attending conferences to get ideas and inspiration. She suggested the Wilderness Risk Management Conference or AORE. Also consider partnerships across campus. “The first year I did the program, I did it alone just as the Outdoor Program and then I partnered with the Wilderness Institute. That is when we started the Freshman Wilderness Experience so we could do it together and cast a bigger net,” she added. “I think collaborating with others is such a good idea as far as getting inspired. We are so siloed. But ultimately it is for the students, so figuring out how we can provide these awesome opportunities with the resources that we have is a no-brainer.”
Is your college or university located somewhere with fewer national parks and forests, mountains and rivers than the University of Montana? Don’t stress. “Even if you don’t live in the most pristine, mountainous terrain, I still think there are opportunities where you can do similar experiences like this,” said Fricke. “There are opportunities to get students acquainted with each other and with the place in a unique way, but it doesn’t have to be the exact same way at every single college or university.”