Outdoor programming could be key to student wellness
It was at the end of outdoor orientation at the University of New Hampshire—a five-day wilderness immersion of incoming first-year students—that a young woman on the program learned her younger brother had just died. He was 17, and there had been a car accident. Administrators she barely knew were breaking news that broke her world, and she was surrounded by peers she’d only known a handful of days.
But those days had been spent on a camping trip hiking, sweating, cooking, pitching tents together, surmounting rocks and hills and sharing anxieties about beginning college. And they rallied around her, young men and women including the student leader, sleeping in her room that night to support her until she was able to return home the next day.
After the funeral, she went back to school to restart her freshman year, to the surprise of Brent Bell, the professor of outdoor education and leadership who’d been the one who’d had to tell her the news.
“She told me later she never would have stayed in college that semester if it weren’t for that group,” Bell recalls.
This is a particularly dramatic example of the tight bonding fostered in outdoor pre-orientation programs offered by a growing number of colleges around the country. But the emotional connection itself isn’t unusual among students, who arrive on campus anonymous and alone ready to fill the void.
The scope of programs like these goes far beyond friendship and some fire skills. Recent studies have found academic benefits, including higher grades and a greater likelihood of graduating on schedule. Post-trip evaluations describe enhanced confidence and competence, better interpersonal skills, changed attitudes and greater appreciation of personal differences. Many programs take advantage of a relaxed setting to introduce sensitive conversations about substance use, sexual dynamics, and stress.
With the emotional health of incoming freshmen at the lowest point in at least three decades, according to the American Freshman Survey, colleges are actively looking for creative vehicles to address mental health coping skills. And many are finding nature the perfect environment to lay the groundwork for wellness.
Putting students outdoors
Today, an estimated 25,000 students take part in an outdoor orientation program heading into their first year of college at 191 schools throughout the U.S. and Canada—more people than Outward Bound or the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) put into nature in a year. The trips take a wide variety of forms, from a few days away to nearly a month, from base camps to backpacking, from optional to mandatory. But they all reflect the framework of the original programs begun in the early 1900s.
“The actual history of these programs came in two parts,” explains Bell. “Dartmouth College’s outing club started a pre-orientation freshman program in 1908 to attract men to the club and found a lot of benefits, so there was the Dartmouth model on the East Coast. In the 1960s out west at Prescott College, a young president wanted students to do an Outward Bound sort of experience, a 30-day intensive.
So then places came up across the country with longer experiences, as well as shorter programs like Dartmouth’s with technical skills from Outward Bound. And they kind of merged together to what you see at a lot of schools today.”
Bell, who previously ran Harvard’s outdoor orientation program and holds a Ph.D. in experiential education, is considered a standard-bearer of the outdoor orientation movement. He’s headed research and written countless reports, and formed the biannual Outdoor Orientation Program Symposium (OOPS) for program directors to share best practices for programs and for training the student leaders who run them. He is also the census-keeper of existing programs at colleges across the U.S. (“there are about 15-20 really good ones”), and a mentor who travels to help colleges start programs or fix ones that are floundering.
But his real passion is figuring out what it is about outdoor programs that makes them so powerful for incoming freshmen, honing it, and convincing more and more schools that it works.
Why take students off-campus to orient them to campus life? Why not hang out in a campus conference center and do team-building exercises? What is it about roughing it outdoors that’s so useful for orientations?
“That’s been my lifelong goal, trying to figure that out,” says Bell. He points to the interdependence of students in an intimate group—hiking, cooking together, sleeping in tents together, dealing with the weather and aches and pains together. The endurance aspect of pushing yourself beyond what you thought you could do. Then there’s the interactions, modeled and facilitated by the leaders, fostering communication in a way that develops trust and breaks down power and status armor that has been worn since middle school.
“I can’t think of a time more status-oriented than the teenage years, concerned with whether you’re going to be a high-status person or a low-status person. This is about getting to know someone as they really are, no dressing up and makeup hiding yourself. Finding a way of working through conflict—because maybe if you were somewhere other than camping you could just ignore that person and not have to deal with them. And it’s about a sense of being really heard, and really hearing others,” Bell says.
“Students say it’s life-changing. So I’m trying to back-fill, look at the key features that do what we’re trying to achieve, and share the best practices with folks at other schools.”
To the incoming students, the draw of the outdoor program seems obvious: make connections, head into campus life with a handful of ready-made friends. For directors and student leaders, it takes strategic forethought to create an environment that naturally fosters engagement and connection, laying the groundwork for more substantial relationships.
For starters, they take away the mental escape hatch of technology and social media.
“Five days alone together in a small group with little interaction with any outsiders, you really get to know each other on a deeper level,” says Christa Ricker, who heads the Tufts outdoor program.
“You go through challenges together. If it’s raining, you’re getting wet together. If there are uncomfortable things, you can’t escape because you’re all living it. And you do it without cellphones or leaning on whatever have been their go-to coping mechanisms.”
At West Virginia University, they take away the phones and hand them journals.
“By the end, participants would say, ‘I’m so glad you took my phone away,’” says Brynn Benson, who graduated in 2018. After her own pre-orientation trip as an incoming first-year student, she went on to be a student leader each subsequent year. To her, the most potent tool for creating authentic relationships is the “If You Really Knew Me” exercise.
“We tell them, ‘If you were an iceberg, we see the top 10 percent of you—what you wear, how you speak.’ We encourage students to write a poem about the other 90 percent, what others don’t see,” Benson explained. “Just write a few lines, it doesn’t have to rhyme.”
Having spent a few days together, they put it right out there, she says—anxiety and assault, depression and discrimination, deeply personal family issues. It can get very intense, even tearful.
“It’s so great when people really share and trust. Sometimes it can get almost too intense. As a leader you have to know how to bring them back down and debrief.”
Another common activity used in programs is “Fears in a Hat.” The leader passes out pieces of paper and asks everyone to write down the one thing they’re most nervous about as they’re starting college. The slips of paper are then passed around anonymously, read aloud, and discussed.
(The top three anxieties that program directors hear are not getting along with a roommate, not being able to handle the academics, and not finding the right social fit on campus.)
Many program directors develop a curriculum of sorts to capitalize on the students’ mindset outdoors—a more receptive state of attention than is typically experienced in the classroom. Studies have shown that spending time in nature has a measurable restorative quality for students, in terms of both concentration and stress reduction.
A number of such studies are collected in the new book Nature Rx: Improving College Student Mental Health, published in May by Cornell University professors Donald Rakow and Gregory Eells.
In the 90s, researchers Steven and Rachel Kaplan developed the Attention Restoration theory—the idea that restoration occurs when we are away from the norm, and that a natural setting provides a more relaxed state with an increased ability to attend to tasks.
In one research example cited, a group of 56 individuals with no access to electronic devices participated in a four-day nature immersion trip. They were given a test to complete before and after the trip; the second one showed a 50 percent improvement in creative problem-solving tasks over the earlier one. A similar study showed a significant improvement in working memory among adults who’d taken a 50-minute nature walk.
Unsurprisingly, program leaders have discovered nature’s classroom makes an excellent environment for conversations often covered in standard orientation gatherings, such as alcohol and drug awareness, sex and consent, gender and cultural diversity.
“It’s standard in most programs now that you don’t just go outdoors and bond and have a good time and come back and feel good about that,” says Rick Curtis, the director of Princeton’s outdoor action program for 38 years.
“There’s more that can be achieved. It’s an opportunity for new students to be integrated into a community’s institutional ideals and values, like being an active bystander and taking care of people in the community.”
In many programs, these conversations are part of a popular curriculum shared among OOPS members called “Leave a Trace” (the name is a twist on the environmental sustainability principle, Leave No Trace). It focuses on using the student leaders to provide a positive vision of what it means to be a responsible member of the college community, in behavior and decision-making.
“Our curriculum development for Leave a Trace centers around having some of the harder conversations on the trail with the leaders,” says Marion Holmes, a director at the outdoor orientation program at West Virginia University (WVU). “Stereotypes, the college drinking culture, all kinds of diversity—it’s a more comfortable and open place to talk about these tougher topics.”
WVU is a good example of the difference a setting can make. For years, the university had a thorough drug and alcohol orientation curriculum, as most schools do, but couldn’t get students to attend it or get engaged, says Bell, who supervised Holmes as a graduate student.
“The danger is that the students really believe they’re the expert at drinking or drugging, that they know more about it than someone who’s researched it for 20 years. You have to give the material the clout of the peer relationship,” he said.
“So they trained the adventure leaders to deliver the curriculum in the woods, and it was fantastic. It was someone they trusted who was their age talking to them, and it had great results of lowering the drinking and drug problem rates on campus.”
The esteem piece
Confidence. Grit. Resilience. Leadership. It might sound cliché to say the challenges of an outdoor adventure program build character, but they do. The personal growth that comes out of a sense of achievement is one of the most potent and lasting effects of the experience.
“You actually have to get up in the morning, put 40 pounds on your back, hike over multiple mountains, then sleep under a tarp whether or not it’s raining. The transference of understanding your ability to overcome challenges is higher than if your challenge is to build a popsicle stick tower,” says Christa Ricker at Tufts.
“Those things are of value, don’t get me wrong. But it’s so much clearer that you’re going to emerge from an outdoor program with a deeper sense of your own power and abilities, and that’s going to carry over into your first-year experience and beyond.”
Tyler Smith is a part-time student at West Virginia University who participated in the outdoor orientation his first year, and has been a student leader for two years since.
“For me, it was one of the most impactful experiences I’ve ever had. And it 100 percent carries over in other areas of your life—talking with other people, communication skills, and being organized. In these experiences you have no other option than to be detail-oriented, because if you don’t fold the corners of your tarp well, you’re going to wake up in a puddle,” he says.
“You can’t teach confidence, but you can make them feel the benefits of being more confident. You take someone rock climbing and they’re scared but the whole group is cheering them on. When they come down, they’ve had an experience that takes them outside their comfort zone, and that really sticks with people.”
A body of research suggests that the first experiences in a student’s first year may be the single greatest determinant of whether a student feels successful or unsuccessful in college.
According to more than 25 peer-reviewed published studies and 11 doctoral dissertations, outdoor orientation programs have been shown to improve academic performance, retention, extracurricular involvement, successful adjustment to college, and sense of place (“Outdoor Orientation Leaders: The Effects of Peer Leadership”; The Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 2017).
WVU was the focus of an eight-year study of student retention rates and graduation. From 2004-2012, the academic performance of students who participated in a subsidized outdoor orientation program (3,878) was contrasted with those who did not (47,533). Allowing for variables like first-generation college status, adjusted gross income, ethnicity, and SAT/ACT stores, the study found that participating in an outdoor orientation increases the probability of staying in school by five percent. For students fitting an at-risk profile, that number rose to 7 percent.
“Anything that creates a two to three percent improvement in the rate of retention is considered a big win. The headline is that this is one of the best retention vehicles I know of,” says Bell.
“The programs tend to attract more upper-middle-class white students, but what we’ve found is the more disadvantaged you are, the more the benefits apply. The student at the lowest level of retention is an African-American male from out of town in financial aid with low SAT scores, and that student actually sees a retention rate of 11-16 percent. The challenge is getting people to believe it, and the students to sign up. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever slept outside.”
The schools that offer the programs don’t need to be persuaded. Some—such as Princeton, Middlebury, and Hamilton—have seen such positive results that they’ve made participation mandatory for all incoming first-year students. Princeton has had an outdoor orientation program for 45 years and made it mandatory in 2016.
“We got to the point in 2012 where we were taking over 800 students out of a class of 1,300—that’s 60 percent of the class. And then there were 150 who did a community service program, and then there were the varsity athletes who couldn’t leave campus,” says Princeton’s Curtis. “So there were only a few hundred who didn’t do any pre-orientation activity, and when they got to campus they didn’t know anyone and felt left out of something special that had happened.”
Some students who participate in the programs experience it like a light switch clicking on, a realization that they want to stay involved in the program and be a part of sharing it with future participants. Program structure varies by school, but in most cases, students can become leaders as early as their sophomore year.
The training can range from rudimentary wilderness and emergency skills with some leadership psychology, to an entire year with 600 hours of preparation, including practice trips with surprise preparedness drills.
The student leader experience carries extraordinary responsibility, and shows a fascinating psychological trajectory in their travel in four stages, as outlined in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership (2017). First, students decide they want to share the impactful experience they’ve had with future first-year students by becoming a guide.
Second, as they train and then embark on the trip, they’re nervous and awed by the weight on their shoulders and doubting their own competence. Next, they work to project competence, feeling the importance of looking trustworthy; and last, they rise to the challenge, and discover increased confidence and interpersonal conflict resolution skills.
“As a leader, I feel as though my insight to understanding people has increased tremendously. Being a leader has also taught me to take charge of situations and to have confidence in myself – two traits that I struggled with prior to becoming a leader,” says Christopher Wilks, a student leader at Princeton who had never been backpacking before his own student orientation as a freshman. “This gives me the confidence to step out of my comfort zone to try something new, and not to fear failure. Being able to lead a group in the outdoors is a such a great boost in confidence that I can’t imagine coming from anywhere else.”
It’s a common refrain in the evaluation forms that come in from students who’ve hung up their hiking boots to take a seat in the classroom. Confidence, competence, leadership, trust, insight, communication, best, favorite, greatest, are some words that reappear.
Bell is gratified to hear it, because that’s why he went into outdoor education after being a first-year student on such a trip, and the first in his family to attend college: to have a role in bringing that kind of experience in the lives of future students.
It’s a common refrain from program to program.
“We get some great evaluations [such as], ‘Best decision I ever made.’ And the staff members are strongly affected by hearing it,” says Holmes of WVU.
“Every year, someone goes on a trip and has a transformative experience, applies to lead, and ends up doing something very different with their lives because of it. And they want to pay it forward, too, for other students to have that experience.”