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W&L Pre-orientation Program Sees Increase in Participants, Trips

This year a record number of more than 200 first-year students at Washington and Lee University are spending five days in one of two “Leading Edge” pre-orientation programs. Appalachian Adventures takes students backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. Volunteer Ventures is a service-learning program that educates students about the realities of poverty by living, learning and working in various communities along the East Coast.

Pre-orientation began Aug. 29 and ends Sept. 2. On-campus orientation for all first-year students begins Sept. 3.

“Both pre-orientation programs have more trips this year and more participants,” said David Leonard, associate dean of student affairs and dean of first-year students. “But we’re also seeing more students coming back to lead the trips as well, sometimes for the second time in a row and in some cases for the third time.”

For Appalachian Adventures trip planner, junior Zachary Zoller, the increase in trip leaders meant spending his summer finding three new trips along the Appalachian Trail. “I’m glad it got bigger this year since more people can take part, because it’s mainly based on the number of trip leaders. So this year we’ve added at least 36 first-year students,” he said. “I guess there was a big boom in the number of trip leaders. We’ve got old ones coming back and a lot of new trip leaders who took part last year. It’s the biggest year it’s ever been.”

All those backpacking trips mean a lot of planning and organizing, which this year was mainly done by junior Ali Pedersen. “I’m organizing all the food, transportation and equipment,” she said. “The burden falls on me, but I have students who are ‘sherpas’ to help me. They don’t go on the trips, but perform tasks such as packing food and gear.”

There are 12 trips on different parts of the Appalachian Trail this year at elevations of 1,000 to 5,000 feet. Each trip has about nine first-year students, with a mix of experienced backpackers and novices. The students hike on average 20 miles in five days and mostly stay overnight in shelters.

“It’s a good challenge to go and live in the wilderness for five days,” said Zoller. “It’s not really about Washington and Lee; it’s about making a connection with other students while they’re in the woods. They’re with a group of strangers and in a whole new environment. But they all come in equal and just get to know each other. Some real friendships develop. And they’re with student trip leaders, not a professional guide.

“I want to give a shout out to the trip leaders,” said Zoller, “because they are the ones who make this happen. They look forward to it all year, and they are so well prepared. They know what they’re doing and know how to help the students.”

One first-year student review of Appalachian Adventures said it was, “more difficult than I expected, but more fun than I imagined.” Another said “It was a blast! I was so worried. I’d never hiked before, let alone backpacked. It was one of the best times of my life…”

Meanwhile, the Volunteer Ventures participants are participating in the program in six different cities – Roanoke, Lexington, Washington, D.C., Greensboro, N.C., Charleston, W.Va., and Richmond.

• See a Facebook gallery of Volunteer Venture students in Charleston, W.Va.

“I went on the Volunteer Venture trip to Washington, D.C., when I was in my first year,” said Shiri Yadlin, a junior from Irvine, Calif., who is the student coordinator for this year’s programs. “It was one of the best decisions of my college career. It jump started my interest in service and led to my participation in the most fun and rewarding organizations at W&L.”

Each of the trips provides students with a different understanding of community and service needs, emphasizing the impact of mountain culture, civil rights, housing, and urban infrastructure on citizen well-being.

The Leading Edge describes both Appalachian Adventures and Volunteer Ventures as memorable, meaningful and challenging experiences. “Both these programs are designed for people to participate in small group activity, and I think there’s a comfort zone with a small group,” said Leonard. “When the first-year students return they’ll be plum tuckered out, but ready to take on the world in terms of getting indoctrinated into the orientation program and meeting many of their other classmates. It’s a nice precursor for good things to come at Washington and Lee.”