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W&L's Pre-Orientation Creates Bonds, Builds Skills of Trip Leaders

Washington and Lee University senior Meredith Hardy’s pre-orientation trip four years ago was such a memorable experience that she decided to do it again…and again… and again.

While the week-long trips as part of W&L’s Leading Edge program are designed to help incoming first year students get a head start on making friends and adjusting to life away from home, the students who organize and lead the trips gain invaluable experience as well.

This is Hardy’s third year as a leader (now senior coordinator) of the Volunteer Venture trip to Washington D.C. Volunteer Venture is a service-learning experience where students examine first-hand the causes and realities of poverty in six cities surrounding Lexington. The program was originally a student initiative, and it has grown over time to 32 student leaders and participants living, learning and working with the communities they serve.

It is one of three Leading Edge programs which bring entering students together for the week before they undergo general orientation with the entire class. The two other tracks are Leadership Venture, which builds leadership skills among a group of 15 students, and Appalachian Adventure, with students hiking and camping on the Appalachian Trail. In 2013, 39 trip leaders are organizing 13 different Appalachian trips of varying difficulty and distance.

Approximately 42 percent of incoming W&L students participate in one of these programs, and it’s not unusual for them to apply to become trip leaders in their sophomore year and stay involved until they graduate.

According to Hardy, a neuroscience and psychology double major with a minor in poverty studies, part of the success of Volunteer Venture is that, in spite of the sometimes emotional sites where they volunteer, it is also great fun. “In the soup kitchen, you’re working as a team chopping crates of cabbages, packing miles of sandwiches and meeting people who work there all the time,” she said.

As an example of the lasting bonds the trips can foster, Hardy cited the Class of 2016 whose members are now entering their sophomore year. “They were an unusually excited group, and I think that without that trip this particular group of friends would never have materialized. The trip brought them together and I know some of them are still as thick as thieves. I get snapshots on my phone from them all the time,” she said, “and I count that group as some of my closest friends at W&L.”

Hardy recalled that it was the leaders on her pre-orientation trip that made her want to get involved. She called them “an incredible set of leaders who were my role models from the first week of school.”

Senior Alvin Thomas is a chemistry and engineering major with a minor in poverty studies. He, too, is leading his third Volunteer Venture trip to Richmond, VA. He pointed out that the trip leaders are an interesting cross section of campus, with different fraternities, sororities, student organizations and majors represented.

“W&L’s pre-orientation trips are a tradition that has become successful due to the fact that our student trip leaders do such good work and provide rich experiences for the participants,” said David Leonard, dean of student life at W&L.”A ton of training, preparation and detailed planning takes place to create a productive five-day trip. Frankly, the story behind the story is the remarkable commitment of our student trip leaders.”

James Dick, director of student activities and outdoor education, explained that student trip leaders on the Appalachian Trail are getting real world leadership experience. “It’s tough sometimes,” he said. “Rain, bugs, whiny participants — it’s not always easy. The main goal for trip leaders is to provide a safe and welcoming adventure into the college experience. Many of the students who graduate tell me that the trip and trip leader training was the best experience they had while at W&L and most recommend being a leader to other students for what they get out of it.”

Senior Katie Jarrell is a biochemistry and German double major and is leading the Volunteer Venture trip to Greensboro, N.C. for the third time. She agreed that a lot of responsibility comes with the job, from making sure the business office sends the deposit to the accommodations on time to planning activities and what people will eat each day within a predetermined budget.

Leaders also make arrangements with the local W&L alumni chapter whose members often interact with the students during the stay. “I’ve learned that the W&L alumni network is fantastic, and you can ask them for nearly anything and they will find a way to get it for you, even if it’s a really strange request,” said Jarrell. “The participants don’t see any of that and think it all just magically happens.”

The training for trip leaders includes learning how to deal with home sickness among the participants. “You have to make sure that you notice if students are hanging out by themselves or they’re on the phone a lot. But we have some useful tools to deal with that, and we know how to have conversations with them. It’s a great way to learn to read people and see how they’re feeling and, as a leader, it’s your job to make sure you include them,” said Jarrell.

Thomas said he was surprised when he became a leader himself at the amount of trust the students place in the trip leaders. “They are so eager to learn about W&L and the college experience and they look to you as the encyclopedia of W&L and rely on you in many ways – a lot more than you would imagine,” he said. “That’s sometimes a difficult role to fill when you’re only a year or two older than them. But when I was a first-year student, the connection I made with the trip leaders was just as important as making friends in my own year and I still stay in touch with some of them today.”

The connections built during pre-orientation week don’t end when everyone is back on campus. “We try to keep those connections going,” said Thomas. “A lot of my pre-orientation students still contact me years later about their schedules. It happens all the time.”

“They are like younger siblings in a way,” agreed Jarrell, “because they’re under your wing and you feel more protective of them than other first-year students you meet on campus.Some of us meet throughout the year just to check in with each other and make sure the year is going well and they have everything they need. It’s a really great bond that can’t be formed if you don’t go on the trip because it brings you together in a special way.”

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