Orientation pushes SNC students out of comfort zone


SNC students backpack in Desolation Wilderness for five days to learn how to guide the high camp orientation for new students. | Photo credit: Malia Kellerman

Kayla Heidenreich, Reporter

SNC students backpack in Desolation Wilderness for five days to learn how to guide the high camp
orientation for new students. | Photo credit: Malia Kellerman

Sierra Nevada College is far from the traditional university experience. From small class sizes to specialized degrees, SNC offers a balance between academics and individualized personal growth. This unique process starts the day new students arrive on campus. Rather than settling into their new home, they are sent into the woods for five days with 10 strangers to either raft the South Fork of the American River, or to backpack into Desolation Wilderness.
The backpacking trip, also known as High Camp and previously known as Wilderness Orientation, has been a tradition for 10 years and has been curated into a world-class experience. This year the trip attracted its second highest attendance in that decade, and it was also one of the most successful. Rosie Hackett, chair of the outdoor adventure leadership program, and Will Hoida, dean of students, have been there since the beginning, watching it evolve into an experience that encapsulates SNC and its values.
This trip introduces incoming students to the school itself, and gives them a sense of place and purpose. Integrating people with their new environment and their new peers, makes students vulnerable and rely on each other. This creates strong bonds in just five days; bonds that would be impossible to duplicate in the front country. The experience is transitional for incoming students as they start to feel comfortable with their new home.
Time Together
Sitting on the edge of a cold granite slab overlooking a large alpine lake, the Milky Way can be seen reflecting off the still water. Conversations flow through the brisk air as people share their darkest secrets, and their friends follow with reassuring and comforting words.
I always have found it hard to find moments in which I feel totally content, but this was one of them. With canned chicken and four-day-old green peppers satisfying our stomachs, sleeping bags scattered in the rocky dirt and strong winds howling over the ridgeline, students lay awake for hours discussing society and how amazing it feels to find peace within the simple, yet wild, backcountry.
This year, the commonly known “Wilderness Orientation” was renamed “High Camp,” but it was more than a name change. Wilderness Orientation was previously a four-day backpacking trip, but this was changed into five days based off the successes of the orientation in the past. This trip is led by two experienced Outdoor Adventure Leadership (ODAL) majors, who are in charge of creating a positive experience that gets incoming students excited about their new home.
“We want our students to know each other, we want them to be pushed, we want them to be a little uncomfortable because that leads to growth,” Sierra Nevada College ODAL professor Daryl Teittinen said. “That growth is relevant in any setting, whether you’re an ODAL major or a major in anything else.”
This trip is not just rewarding for the incoming freshman attending, but also the student leaders. My co-leader Tyler Rayman and I spent hours preparing for this trip trying to think of ways to make the best group dynamic we could. It was so rewarding to watch our efforts pay off and create new relationships.
Starting orientation off on the first day, students arrival was very stressful, for both the students and leaders. Immediately arriving at SNC and not even getting to spend a night in their dorms, was not the students’ favorite way to start. Everybody was a stranger and the vibe was a little awkward. Trying to reign everybody in, and get them stoked was more challenging than I initially expected. We slept out in the woods on campus the first night, which was not very enticing for students who could see their newly made beds through the dorm windows. We were awakened to sprinklers going off at around 2 a.m., resulting in some wet sleeping bags and a little bit of a stressful morning.
Once we finally made it to Eagle Falls trailhead, Rayman and I were trying to lighten the mood and crack some jokes. I knew after about 30 minutes of hiking that Rayman and I got lucky and had the sickest group. Over the next five days I got to know these people on such deep levels and watch them work to create a powerful group dynamic.
On the first night, we made it to the Velma Lakes area. As we started to approach the large granite slabs sticking out of the earth, the students’ excitement began to rise. We set up camp and spent the afternoon getting to know each other and watching a thunderstorm roll out across the sky.
Many students were in awe, as they had never experienced such a natural phenomenon while feeling vulnerable under a small tent.
“I have always loved this quote, ‘Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m Possible,’ but I never resonated with it or believed it until after High Camp,” SNC freshman, Gabby Herrera, said. “I experienced things I never thought I would experience with friends I never thought I could have.”
The rest of the night we laughed while cooking backcountry burrito bowls, and finding common interests with each other. The stars started flickering in the sky as our world was illuminated by the stars reflecting off the granite rocks we were sleeping on. It was only night one and Rayman and I were sitting there watching people become best friends in a matter of 24 hours. This was my biggest goal of the entire trip: to create an environment where people could be their most genuine selves and form everlasting relationships with others. Rayman and I looked at each other and high fived with two big goofy smiles covering our already dirty faces.
The next four days flew by, faster than everyone would have liked. With 11 new, deeply rooted relationships formed, we headed back into the intimidating front country.
With sweaty high fives and stinky hugs, we reflected on how the backcountry provides such a safe space in a “dangerous” area. Being in such a small group in an expedition setting gives people space to be themselves, but not enough space to leave the group setting.
Putting students in these small groups for five days where they watch the sunrise together and the sunset together, creates an environment that can’t be replicated in the front country.