by Joshua Unikel '07
"In any academic setting, you need to have a connection to a place," says Christine Moskell '08, a participant in the Outdoor Recreation Adventure Program (ORAP). "Having a connection to Geneva or to the Finger Lakes region definitely helps students in the classroom and on campus because they're comfortable in their surroundings."
Fortunately, the Colleges' natural surroundings have long been intertwined with the curriculum, in some cases as a living laboratory and in others as inspiration, offering student writers and artists "...the chance to muse," as the late Professor of English Deborah Tall once wrote.
Walking clubs and outdoor programs have come in and out of existence since the founding of both Colleges, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s, when William Smith Head Soccer Coach Aliceann Wilber founded ORAP, that the Colleges invested in the equipment necessary to take on more intense excursions such as mountain-climbing, camping and white-water rafting.
"ORAP is a really healthy outlet for a distinct piece of the student population at the Colleges," Wilber points out. "A lot of students are trying to find a social niche or just a worthwhile hobby. ORAP can help students find those while introducing them to the outdoors."
In addition to offering faculty and staff guided trips each year, ORAP maintains an equipment rental center and an inventory of resource materials like maps and trail guides to allow students to create their own outdoor experiences. For those who can't leave campus, a student-built climbing wall is available in the Bristol Field House. ORAP also offers classes in skiing, orienteering, kayaking, skating and wilderness first aid.
"ORAP is a great way for students to connect with this place and one another," says Kirby Rootes-Murdy '08, an ORAP and environmental enthusiast. "Every year we've had great leaders who have been able to get people involved. Interest seems to keep growing." Just last year, the office of Student Activities named ORAP the 'Most Improved Club' because of the group's surge in activity, quality of trips and impact on students. Students make such strong connections on ORAP trips in part because of trip sizes. Whether camping, kayaking or cross country skiing, ORAP limits its trips to about eight students.
"We choose to keep the groups smaller for lower environmental impact and to offer a more personal experience for the students," explains Wilber. "I think students can definitely come away from a trip having learned something about themselves," says Rootes-Murdy. "Testing out something new can reveal things about yourself that you didn't know. Also interacting with people that you didn't know in the outdoors can do the same."
"Being up close with nature you form a connection with it; you see things that you wouldn't normally see," says Moskell. "Being out in nature also gives you time to de-stress and connect with yourself and others." In addition to their work with ORAP, Moskell and Rootes-Murdy are two of 13 guides in the Pre-Orientation Adventure Program (POAP), which allows first-year students the opportunity to spend several days before Orientation camping together in the Adirondacks or the Finger Lakes National Forest. The program, which this year included nearly 30 firstyear students, was started by Hobart Assistant Dean David Mapstone '93, who was inspired by the Pre-Orientation Outing Program that was present on campus in the 1970s and 1980s.
POAP requires first-years to work together to cook meals, pitch tents and navigate the wilderness. "The real goal of these trips is to encourage students to connect with their peers as well as the environment," Mapstone explains.
"Out in the environment on POAP trips, first-year students will have to rely on each other to survive," Moskell points out. "We'll be going in small groups so everyone will be able to get to know each other. I really see the potential for the group to bond. If we are all hiking up a really steep hill and make it to the top, I think we will rejoice in that accomplishment together."
"When these first-years arrived back on campus for Orientation, they already had a core group of friends they know well," says Rootes-Murdy. "Hopefully they'll be able to lean on one another over all four years here because of this outdoor experience."
With all the advantages the program offers, Mapstone hopes to see it expand in the coming years. "It's an ideal way for students to quickly form relationships based on shared experiences," he says. "Outdoor recreation is more than just having fun; it's about exploring the natural world with the guidance and support of faculty and staff, testing your boundaries, discovering your abilities, and building collaborative communities."