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Orientation in the Wild
September 21, 2006

This past summer incoming Calvin College students trekked to the North Channel region of Ontario, on the shores of Lake Huron, for a rugged and challenging version of orientation.

All told 40 first-time Calvin students participated in the college’s Wilderness Orientation Program, which combined sea kayaking, rock climbing, rappelling, island camping, voyager canoeing, sailing and solo time—all with an eye to bonding.

“We’re attempting to establish that initial community about which first-year students are so apprehensive,” says Ryan Walter Rooks, Calvin’s coordinator of outdoor recreation. “In our trips, we’re forming a spiritual space where they capture a vision for their next four years.”

The three groups, composed of 14 students and three instructors each, spent eight days learning their way around a sea kayak (“we put 50 to 60 lbs. of gear in each boat, and we live out of them for eight days,” Walter Rooks says), a cliff face, a campsite and the wilderness in general. Each day began with push ups, sit ups and yoga. Students also undertook both hour-long and 24-hour-long solo experiences in the great outdoors.

“We’re positioning these students in an environment where we know there will be adversity—whether it’s paddling in 50-knot winds or setting up tents in 30-knot winds. Every day, students will be stretched,” Walter Rooks says. “It really causes leaders and the group alike to work through a great decision-making process.”

The students come to the wilderness orientation with various outdoor skill levels, and they learn as they go. The trip, modeled on similar programs at Wheaton and Gordon colleges, earns them one academic credit. The instructors have all taken an American Canoe Association coastal canoeing course, are trained in top rope climbing site management and have achieved levels of first aid training from basic first aid up to a wilderness first responder.

“I have a strong belief in the teaching of advanced wilderness skills in small group settings and through one-on-one instruction,” says Walter Rooks, who spent years leading outdoor adventures all over the nation for Springhill Camps before coming to Calvin in 2004. “I think it creates a great relationship between the instructor and the students and within the student group.”

John Britton, Calvin associate dean for residence life and one of the architects of the wilderness orientation program, likes how the external challenges of the trips enable students to deal with non-externals.

“For a lot of students it strips away the comforts of everyday life and allows you to deal with some of the issues you don’t normally deal with in orientation programs—issues of leaving family and making friends,” Britton says. “The ability to commune with God, being in the outdoors, witnessing the beauty of His creation allows reflection and spiritual renewal to take place in the way that it doesn’t in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.”

Britton and Walter Rooks hope to expand the trips to include 75 students next year and even more in upcoming years. “I’d love to have ten percent of our students going through this program,” Britton says.

“Calvin has such an incredible student development philosophy, and these trips enhance that,” adds Walter Rooks. “Students know each other's stories by the time the week is done.”

~written by communications and marketing staff writer Myrna Anderson