While most students were still appreciating their last summer evenings and saying their goodbyes, 120 freshmen, nervous but playing it cool, waited en masse outside a large, locked door upstairs in Houston Hall. The more confident ones peered through the crack in the door to glimpse flashes of orange and bare feet and a few animal faces. Then the freshmen began to hear an incessant, 2004 chomp and… Yea-ea-ea-ah, yea-ea, I feel hardcore (see “Always Hardcore”)
When the doors swung open, they stumbled into the noise and into twenty-something PennQuest leaders acting as the animals that we are. We danced and yelled and gestured for them to do some things. We were soon heading into the wild and had to lead by example.
Introducing ourselves on our terms— with a vague slideshow of leaders followed by an “aggressive” (freshmen et. al) dance routine—we conveyed the essence of PennQuest. That is, pure exhilaration that comes from turning a diverse group of fresh students into a group of friends through an outdoor experience. As leaders, our goal was to return to campus with three full buses of freshmen who were able to feel this connection before they were to meet the challenges of their next life experiences.
Long before the freshmen arrived, PennQuest leaders had been preparing to create the environment necessary for PennQuest to work. Organizing a four-day outdoor experience involves more than rehearsing a five minute dance routine, which alone is time-consuming given that very few leaders actually “dance” (but we all have moves). For example, we had to float down the Delaware River on tubes one afternoon.
More to the point, we spent our preparation time training for the risks of being on the Appalachian Trail. In the woods, there are bears, we rely on maps, no phones, and we carry in food, water, and shelter. We go through a wildlife emergency training course and constantly review scenarios for the trail. We treat artificial wounds and simulate bear attacks. The main results of training and preparation are that the logistics of backpacking, transportation, and planning activities are taken care of, and the leaders can spend more time with the freshmen while being ready for unusual circumstances. We are also lucky to have a Base Camp team of leaders that coordinates pretty much everything.
The 120 freshmen are broken into smaller groups, which are led by pairs of leaders. This was my first year leading a group on the trail, and I am still jazzed by the experience. Once groups get dropped off at their individual trails, PennQuest becomes more personal. The residual excitement makes room for smaller interactions and unique memories. People finish unhealthy amounts of gooey pasta because they can. People go to the bathroom at the same time because why not. People listen to each other. It’s interesting what happens in nature with no distractions.
In three days on the trail, there is a lot to learn about one another. But relationships just start on PennQuest. Before I knew it, my group (the B’s) had regrouped with everybody else and were performing our theme song (a lot rhymes with “b”) on the bus back to campus. I wish we could have stayed out there indefinitely, but we all signed up for college and now had each other to start it with.
This year, my group let me feel like a freshman again. I started college as a wide-eyed kid from Arizona, and that’s how I am going to finish it. I can thank PennQuest for that.