Incoming freshmen battle nettles during Swarthmore pre-orientation

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This summer, sixteen incoming freshmen and four upperclassmen leaders hiked along the West Rim Trail in northern Pennsylvania as part of a new pre-orientation program called SWAT, or Swarthmore Wilderness Action Trip.

The freshmen were divided into two groups that started at opposite ends of the thirty-and-a-half mile trail, which runs along the edge of Pennsylvania’s 800-foot deep Grand Canyon. The two groups covered the trail in four days and three nights, meeting in the middle on the second night of the trip to build a bonfire. Freshmen had to apply to go on the trip, and sixteen were selected. The trip cost $250, although this fee was waived for those on financial aid.

As co-chair of this year’s Orientation Committee, Phil Katz ’07 was the contact person for students who wanted to propose new pre-orientation trips. When the wilderness trip was proposed, Katz’s extensive experience with such trips made him a perfect choice to be the Swarthmore coordinator for the program, although his orientation duties precluded him from joining.

Katz would like to “bump the hiking trip from 16 students to 48 for next year,” but he would also like to expand the pre-orientation program even further, possibly with programs based around community service, learning about Philadelphia, or visiting art museums in the area. “It is my hope that within five years, every incoming Swarthmore student will be able to do some sort of pre-orientation program.”

Nicolas Kitten ’10 applied for the program because “in my experience, intense group activities serve to bond people much more effectively than icebreakers or other laid-back events… the bonding experience wouldn’t have been quite so effective if the whole thing was a breeze.”

The trip lived up to all expectations of intensity. According to Kitten, “It rained – often, and that was something we had to deal with while hiking and breaking down camp. Some portions of the trail were quite steep and somewhat treacherous. At one point, we had to pass through what seemed a mile-long patch of nettles, with anti-itch cream constantly passing hands.” This part of the trip inspired the creation of a Facebook group which exists, according to Jeff Weaver ’10, “to commemorate that epic journey… I don’t think I fully appreciated how much stinging nettles itch when one has been stung at least twenty times on each leg.”

Backpacking was also a strong bonding experience because, according to trip leader Kristin Leitzel ’07, “there’s a new level of comfort. Imagine no showers for three nights and tents with four people in them. By the end, you loosen up a lot.” As Weaver recalled, “At least two hours of our five hour busride home were spent fantasizing about a long, hot shower… I hope we didn’t permanently disable the poor bus driver’s sense of smell.”

Of course, the entire trip was not spent in pain. According to Kitten, “One particularly noteworthy event was the christening and enjoyment of the Plotkinswing, a sandwich named for its creator [Ben Plotkin-Swing ’09, a trip leader], composed of peanut butter, pepperoni, and jelly on a bagel.”

The trip leaders– Leitzel, Plotkin-Swing, Armando Leon ’09, and Elizabeth Richey ’07– were similarly enthusiastic about the trip. Leitzel “had a great time leading the trip. We had a wide range of experience among the new students, but everyone was awesome about it. I think some didn’t understand what they were getting into at first, and it was a shock to put on a 25-pound back pack, but they took it well and had a great time.” She thinks that backpacking was “a great bonding experience because we were stuck together for four days and dependent on each other for our safety as well as our amusement.”

Richey agreed, explaining that she applied to be a trip leader “because I regret that Swarthmore didn’t offer a similar program when I was a first-year and I think it could be an important part of the orientation process. It is a great way to meet new people – people who all share some interest, but who you might not otherwise meet during the early days of first semester… we really hope that the administration recognizes the significance of small group experiences like this for facilitating new student organization and dedicates the time and resources necessary to further develop the program.”

“We began Orientation week as a clique, much like the Tri-Co kids, but this only lasted a few days before the group dispersed into individual friendships,” said Jean Strout ’10. “I consider several of my hiking buddies to be the best friends I have made so far, and all sixteen of us–plus the four leaders– share the bond of four crappy, muddy, awesome, extremely smelly days.”

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