Colorado Rocky Mountain School begins each school year by having its new students participate in a wilderness orientation, and we have done so for over 40 years. In its current format this 10-day outdoor trip includes service days, a 24-hour solo, and an opportunity to hike through some of Colorado’s beautiful landscape. Over the years this orientation program has developed into a cornerstone experience for our students, and much like all our active and academic programs, it contributes to the growth of the whole child as each student gains an opportunity to reflect on themselves and their responsibility within the community.
In the 1970s CRMS embraced what is now familiarly known as our “Wilderness Session,” a program that has its origins in Outward Bound programming. Our primary objective in our “Wilderness Session” is the same as many of the orientations that take place throughout the nation at this time of year, and that is to establish a relationship with our new students. The difference between our orientation and so many others is that we feel that building a relationship requires a significant amount of time, attention and trust on the part of each member in our community. Taking our orientation into the backcountry allows us to naturally remove those items that might distract us from this goal (primarily cell phones and social media). Faculty benefit from spending time with each member on the trip, observing how their charges interact with peers, confront challenges, and collaborate with others. It gives the adult and student leaders an opportunity to share with each member of the group our school values and culture, and to model for our new students what it means to be an Oyster and to guide, support, and connect with others.
The new students return to campus feeling a part of a school community that may have felt unfamiliar 10 days prior. Each student having been through the Wilderness Session begins classes with an experience that is shared with every CRMS student. They will have proven that they can exist for an extended period of time without technology, that they can rely on each other and connect with people who began as strangers, and that it is possible through hard work and support to move beyond what they may have envisioned as personal limitations. Each student leaves with a genuine pride in what they have accomplished in this relatively short amount of time.
We attribute our strong school culture and the care and empathy our students display during their time on campus to the solid foundation they gain through these unique experiences. Over the years I have not been surprised to see this style of orientation gain in popularity, particularly at colleges and universities. My alma mater, Pomona College, now offers an “Orientation Adventure” that is “a great opportunity for new students to make their first friends and enjoy several days of fun and challenging activities.”
We are all excited to welcome back this year’s group of new students from Wilderness and to hear about their adventures. To view photos from this year’s wilderness groups, please visit our flickr account.