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Into the Woods

For incoming freshmen, a week in the wild makes coming to Johns Hopkins a little tamer.

By Raford Bussey Jr., A&S '12
Photography by Will Kirk, A&S '99

For the past 11 years, Johns Hopkins' Outdoor Pursuits Program has been offering incoming freshmen a head start in getting to know their classmates. For a week in late August, Pre-O immerses nearly 100 students-to-be in West Virginian nature, where they romp in the woods, sleep in tents, talk around campfires, and apparently — as the students on the following pages attest — learn to lower their hygiene standards. Sure, Mother Nature has a lot to teach them. But it turns out that these students take the best lessons from each other.

Follow the leader: Junior Kathryn Smith (opening photo) leads a multi-element group backpacking. The week's other activities include climbing, canoeing, and rafting.


Be a Little Scared, Get a Little Confident

The summer of 2007 was all things visceral, at least for this small-town Georgia boy. I was set to attend Johns Hopkins University, leaving home behind — well, to say "gleefully" would be putting it mildly. The months leading up to my departure saw me practically salivating at the thought of my imminent independence.

Earlier that summer, a flier in the mail had invited me to attend Johns Hopkins' Pre-orientation outdoor immersion experience. Thing is, it meant that I'd leave home a week early, so they pretty much had me at "Pre." Applications were filled, checks written, legal rights waived, and allergies noted so that, in short order, I was enrolled. I wasn't sure what I was enrolled to do exactly — my "outdoor" experience thus far amounted to one daylong fishing expedition and one night sleeping in my car because I forgot my key and was locked out of the house — but as far as I was concerned, that was entirely beside the point. I was college-bound and, by some serendipitous loophole, I was bound early.

As is the case for any big step, my excitement would soon enough give way to nerves. Then trepidation. And then — in late August, flying into Baltimore/Washington International Airport — actual fear. I think I could smell it. (Apparently, in an airport terminal, fear smells like a mix of industrial-strength bathroom cleaner and the Cinnabon shop.) I stumbled through the airport, less in charge of things and more alone. I'm fairly sure that, at a certain point, Independence shouldered past me on his way to a connecting flight.

I made my way to the baggage claim to claim my one bag, a large green duffle stuffed with supplies the program had recommended: three pairs of underwear, two shirts (non-cotton), two shorts, toiletries, "and a smile!" (Seriously.) And then I waited. As all the other passengers collected their bags, I waited. Maybe it was 20 minutes, but it felt long enough for me to start to assume that something had gone wrong.

Finally, from behind, a stranger said, "Rip." I looked over my shoulder. "Rip?" he repeated. "I'm Ryan Farmer, and I've been watching you. You look like a Hopkins student." Ryan was the Pre-O leader sent to fetch me and several others from the airport. "Sorry to scare you like that," he said. "It's tradition to let you guys squirm a bit. Think of it as a preview of orientation week."

With that, we were off to the Homewood campus, where roughly 30 not-exactly intrepid campers would spend a night of anticipation before departing the next morning for West Virginia.

Day one, we were sorted into groups. I was a multi-element kid, which meant I would spend my week rafting, canoeing, backpacking, and rock climbing — a sort of sampler platter of activities, which we launched into that afternoon.

Though we participated enthusiastically enough in the sports, it was our grievances — the food was bad, we missed running water — shared around the campfire that bonded us together. Each evening, the questions would start: So . . . how do you balance schoolwork with a social life? Do you ever miss your family? Will I have to clean my own room? We were a family of complainers, a merry band of sourpusses, voicing our concerns all at once, sometimes in near desperation. Our leaders, Cassie and Livy, did their best to answer, but we were going to have to figure some of these things out for ourselves. What we didn't realize then was that this was the point of Pre-O: to force us to let go — of what was comfortable, of self-doubt, of unfounded fears.

As it turns out, Mother Nature has a way of prying one's fingers.

For me, that happened on day four. We were partway through a nine-mile hike, and with Livy and me in the lead, we wandered off course and ended up in a swamp. The group groaned and cursed and tossed their bags to the ground.

Me, I just laughed. Not that it was funny. I just didn't know what else to do. I missed my cell phone, I missed my car, I missed toilets, I missed bathing. I missed home.

Not long after though, I realized something very important. I didn't miss the noise. Somewhere between gagging on my own body odor and defecating in a hole, I had a little epiphany: I could think out here, spend a little time in my own head. I could have a conversation with myself, think about my goals for the coming year.

Of course, at the moment, I was still pretty grumpy. But when I got to campus a few days later, I was a little more composed and confident than I had been boarding the plane in Georgia, a little more prepared for my four-year hike into uncharted territory.

This August, I sat in terminal B's baggage claim and watched as a skinny kid from Minnesota gathered his things. I peeked again at my list of participants. He hadn't spotted me yet, but I'd been following him. I waited until the crowd around the conveyer departed and he stood alone. Just as he pulled out his phone to call home, I made my move:

"Will?" I said. "I'm your Pre-O leader, Rip. Sorry to scare you like that — it's tradition."

Raford "Rip" Bussey Jr., a sophomore in the Writing Seminars, led canoeing and hiking trips during this year's Pre-Orientation.


John Wei (leader)
Age: 20
Class Year: 2009
Hometown: East Setauket, Long Island
Studying: Neuroscience

"I had never done anything in the outdoors before Pre-O. That was my first experience and I really loved it, obviously, so I came back for more. . . . I love instructing. It's humbling and empowering at the same time to think, for a second, that you're the first experience a lot of the kids have with Hopkins. It's your responsibility not only to make sure they have fun but to present yourself and the school in such a way that keeps them excited for the rest of the year. . . . Being with new people and dealing with new participants every year is a great learning experience regarding interpersonal interaction — how to deal with unusual characters, if you will. Outdoor Pursuits does a great job of keeping us leaders up on our hard or technical skills as well. They do a good job of keeping their leaders sharp. . . . We often have kids who don't really put their hearts into what they're doing — those situations where their parents signed them up. And we had one guy who would wander off to other campsites and eat their food while wearing nothing but his long underwear. . . . Spring break of my freshman year, Outdoor Pursuits took a bunch of kids from my Pre-O group to California for more climbing. It was a week of [traditional] and sport climbing and we all knew each other already, so it was pretty sweet."


Kerry Frank
(pictured with leader Berent Lundeen)
Age: 18
Class Year: 2012
Hometown: Kennebunk, Maine
Studying: International Relations

"It seemed like a good idea to connect with other kids before actually being on campus. You don't want to be limited to just the kids you live with. It has proven to be a pretty effective way to meet new people without being awkward about it. . . . I was at Bonnaroo [Music and Arts Festival]. I'm not sure that counts [as an outdoor activity], although Bonnaroo was grosser than Pre-O. . . . The first night I didn't really sleep, but eventually you become so exhausted that you sort of give in. It was probably the third day before I finally got used to being tired and disgusting. . . . I was surprised that I could actually handle eight days without showering. . . . Camping is fun and all, but I don't really think that's why people do Pre-O.I ended up recognizing Pre-O kids during orientation, even if I wasn't already friends with them. There are only a few kids I'm not really familiar with."


Vanessa Valdivida
Age: 18
Class Year: 2012
Hometown: West Palm Beach, Florida
Studying: Neuroscience

"I love the outdoors. . . . I felt really awkward not showering. It's kind of funny because now I do things from Pre-O and I realize that I probably shouldn't do them, like eating food off the floor. . . .Our leaders really helped us all open up. They were really good about facilitating conversations. We had a really great mix of kids — some shy, some outgoing, some who had never been outdoors, and others who had — and our leaders were really good at finding common ground for us all. . . . We somehow ended up with this one huge tent for no reason, and one night, everyone in our group decided to sleep in the one tent. Some kids from another group saw us and decided they'd get in, too. We definitely bonded that night. . . . We get made fun of on campus now because my group and I do everything together. People around campus are like, 'How do you have best friends already?' and I'm like, 'Well, when you sleep in a tent next to the same person for seven days, they kind of get to know you. They've seen you at your worst and all you have left to show them is your best.'"


Abigail Roberts
Age: 18
Class Year: 2012
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Studying: International Relations, Writing Seminars

"I was interested in doing some outdoorsy-type stuff, and I wanted to meet some people before getting to Hopkins. And I knew I'd be sitting on my butt the week prior coming to Hopkins, anyway. . . . I did some [outdoor] stuff with my elementary school — they took us rock climbing a bunch — and I'd done some canoeing and hiking. . . .I was nervous about peeing in the woods. . . . The second day of backpacking was pretty bad because we'd go up, and then down. All day. That was it — there was no happy medium. Then that night, even though our campsite had shelters, Mark [Felbinger] and Tessa [Caudle] our leaders, decided we'd be hardcore and sleep under tarps. And then we got caught in the edge of a hurricane. But, luckily, I was in the middle of the tarp so I was OK! . . .We played this dessert game where we made brownie mix and passed it around in a circle. You had to get all of the mix off without taking the spoon out of your mouth. "


Kate Stoeckle
Age: 19
Class Year: 2012
Hometown: New York City
Studying: Psychology and Writing Seminars

"I had heard [Pre-O] was a really good thing to do before school so that, once you get there, you know people, you feel comfortable, and you've already had a Hopkins experience. . . . When we first got there, no one was speaking, and it was a little awkward. But I felt that maybe everyone was just nervous. Once we got into the trip, though, we all blended really well. . . . I already knew this coming in, but the trip really reinforced the fact that you really can't tell what people are going to be like just from seeing them or talking to them for five minutes. Even though the trip was only seven days, every day I learned something new about the people I was with and I got closer to them. I didn't expect that at the beginning. . . . I had great leaders — Nathan [Kirkpatrick ] and [Sarah] Abare. They were part of the reason why the trip was so great. They had a great dynamic. I see them around campus now and it's nice to know upperclassmen. . . .It's like when you get on campus, you already have an experience to draw on. It's not like you're running around to different orientation activities — it's like you're already a part of Hopkins in some way."


Ryan Burne Barrett
Age: 19
Class Year: 2012
Hometown: Groton, Massachusetts
Studying: Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

"I did Pre-O to meet new people and just have a fun time trying new and challenging things. . . . I had done some outdoors stuff before, but it was all at a beginner level. During the white-water rafting trip, our raft flipped and all of us got dumped into the river. I mean, it was fun floating down the rapids for the first few minutes, but I started to get nervous as we got closer to the larger rapids. The rafting thing definitely pushed me beyond my comfort level, but it was a good push that I'm glad I experienced. . . . My leaders, Kathryn Smith and John Lippe, were very knowledgeable and really enthusiastic about what they were doing. They made the trip a blast. They were outgoing and friendly, which made it easy to ask them questions about college. . . . At night we would all walk to the bathroom together and wait for one another to finish brushing their teeth and then walk back up the hill talking and telling stories. We spent a lot of the nights just talking in the tent. I was a little surprised about how open our group was. Everyone was willing to share parts of themselves — it really made for a good group connection. . . . I am definitely more confident, not necessarily regarding the outdoor activities but just when it comes to meeting and interacting with new people."

Return to November 2008 Table of Contents

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