Orientation Backpacking Eliminated, Other Changes Underway

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.

In a meeting that re-evaluated the goals of freshman orientation, the deans have made a decision to eliminate the pre-orientation backpacking trip, in addition to changing the composition of the CA groups and making the mailings accessible online.

The deans met for a session about orientation earlier this spring.

“We were thinking about ‘What are the goals of orientation?’ ‘What are the activities we have?’ and ‘What things could be done better online?’” Dean Myrt Westphal said.

They also discussed activities that happened before orientation.

“The backpacking trip was started with the idea that every student would have the opportunity to have a pre-orientation experience,” Westphal said. Unfortunately, some students had to be rejected from the program over subsequent years.

Offering every incoming freshman a pre-orientation experience—backpacking or otherwise—would require a “very large commitment” on the College’s behalf.

“Schools who have that kind of experience have a whole office to organize and run those things. We just don’t have the people power at present,” Westphal said.

The summer Tri-College Institute is also being re-evaluated, though decisions about it are still tentative.

The CA groups will also change composition, in an ongoing attempt to make the orientation experience more relevant to students’ later life at the College.

“Instead of being [made up of] people from all across campus, about half of them would be people from your dorm, and half of them people from another dorm. You would have some continuity with the people in your CA group that was ongoing,” Westphal said.

Last year’s Orientation Committee had particularly focused on the CA leaders.

“We gave them more flexibility and simply more activities. We tried to increase the cohesive nature of those groups,” said Doug Gilchrist-Scott, co-chair of the 2007 committee.

The last definite change to next year’s orientation does not specifically involve student life, but technology. Dean Garikai Campbell is currently reviewing all of the mailings that students receive over the summer.

“You will submit a lot of those forms…online. When you put in your ID number or your name or something, all kinds of basic information will pop up for you on that form, whether it’s for the Health Center, or…about academic advisers,” Westphal explained.

There will also be an attempt to streamline the mailings and give them a more common or cohesive aesthetic.

Many students who have gone on the backpacking trip found it to be central to making them feel a part of the Swarthmore community, and want the program to continue.

“It’s a hard thing. The outdoor experience is so strong and so positive for the people who have been involved, but it doesn’t go with our Swarthmore way of everybody having that kind of opportunity,” Westphal said. “It’s hard to give up something that has been so influential to you as a person. But there are so many things here that are influential to each person that don’t have a yes-you-can, no-you-can’t aspect to them.”


  1. 0
    Vy Vo ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    The idea is that some freshmen are rejected from having this experience, and receiving your first rejection letter when you’ve not even taken a class here yet is a little bit harsh. They would require a whole office to make the trip available to everyone–not to keep it at its current size.

    In addition, if this initiative were to be implemented, it would make more sense to make it part of the College’s long range 2020 planning, since orientation is one of the things being discussed by that committee. They definitely cannot put together an entire office by next year.

    You can definitely send your suggestions to the 2020 committee to planning@swarthmore.edu. More information here: http://www.swarthmore.edu/x9679.xml

    After speaking to Dean Westphal, I don’t think this was a rash decision. They spent a long time thinking about how to improve the orientation experience, and do not preclude the possibility of ever re-instating the backpacking trip again.

  2. 0
    Michael Roswell says:

    I could echo and amplify Sarah’s comments, and I’m sure that that’s the case for almost everyone lucky enough to have participated. I fail to understand why this hiking trip suddenly requires a whole office to plan and orchestrate. It was well put together last year almost entirely in the hands of a single student, and the vast majority of people who wanted to come were accepted. This year it would be possible to learn from mistakes from last year and run an even better program. We students would be delighted to put our heads together to work out any logistical issues that prevent all interested first years from participating.
    Four nights, about four days. That’s all the hiking trip was. By the end, I had amazing friendships with other freshman, a network of older students whom I knew, respected, and (my trip leaders most especially) befriended, and loads of information and ideas about Swarthmore from classes to sweet campus jobs to the dating atmosphere.
    I stress not only that the experience was spectacular and meaningful, but that it was superior to any orientation for any program I’ve been involved in, or can conceive of. I think it would be a real shame to dismiss this invaluable element of “orientation” because of logistical issues, especially before I and fellow students had a chance to grind our teeth on them.
    In addition to sadness about the loss of this incredible experience, I read this article with sadness about Swarthmore. I feel strongly that this is something worth investing in, and I’m surprised that it’s being eliminated without discussing it with us lucky few who were able to participate. Usually I see that this school, by virtue of being small and personal, takes the time to think seriously about how to improve things that need improvement, and how to maintain things that are good. This reads to me as a rash decision that does neither, and I’m sorry not to have been included in the conversation.

  3. 0
    Sarah Kroll '11 says:

    It’s really a shame that the backpacking trip is being taken away as an option for incoming students. There is no way for me to adequately express what the trip gave me as a person and a Swattie, and I have to thank everyone who made SWAT happen this year, especially Myles Dakan, who was a phenomenal trip organizer and leader. I understand that the administration has already made their decision in removing SWAT, but I think that it’s only right to share what the experience meant to me, and what an amazing thing is being taken away. (Yes, this is going to be very long.)

    I came to Ride the Tide last year even though I was ED, and I left feeling extremely anxious about my commitment to Swarthmore. I was convinced that I would not be able to fit in and make good friends freshman year. SWAT changed everything for me. My best friends are from my hike group, and I am still close with everyone in the group. Looking at my classes and activities, I probably wouldn’t have met many of them if not for the trip.

    I signed up for the hike with no backpacking skills whatsoever and very little faith in my physical abilities. These fears were confirmed, but that wasn’t really the point of the trip. The people in my group provided a huge amount of emotional support for each other in times of physical and mental stress which are unlikely to come about in a CA group meeting. My biggest worry was that I would be looked down on for being the weakest link, but my group never judged me or expressed frustration. There is something sappy to be said here about trusting myself and the other people in my group, and there is a specific moment I have in mind. However, as hard as I try, it can’t be said without sounding like a bad college essay, so this part ends here.

    My biggest fear going into orientation was coming to a new place full of people that were inevitably going to be judging me on a first impression. On a hike, you don’t have to impress anyone with your fashion sense, since you’re wearing the same clothes for three days straight. You don’t have to do your hair or makeup to look good, because everyone will be equally sweaty and smelly. I wanted my first impression to be one that was truly me, and SWAT made for an honest portrayal of everyone – many months later, I can look at my friends and know that no one put on an act to make themselves different from who they are. The trip provided a very comfortable transition and made the first weeks of school much easier.

    On SWAT, silly games like dinner date and Botticelli are widely accepted as the best form of entertainment away from a campus with cell phone reception and internet connection. Playing these “get to know you” games can be boring or awkward in CA groups, when most people would rather be doing something else, which is probably why CA group activities were largely unattended. People end up uncomfortable and embarrassed if they are actually interested in the games, since the acceptable attitude is jaded nonchalance. Put the group in the middle of the woods, and the games become what they should be: a jumping-off point for getting to know each other. They are also awesome games, anyway.

    There is a certain kind of bond that gets created on a hiking trip like SWAT. Friendships are formed over something as small as a shared cliff bar. Everyone sleeps shoulder to shoulder. In a short few days, the group spends every moment together, depending on each other (especially our fearless leaders). You just don’t get the same connection with your CA group.

    Clearly, the best situation would be for everyone who wanted to go on the hike to be able to go. Unfortunately, that can’t always happen, which seems to be one of the major reasons for its disappearance. I disagree with the decision makers on the idea that if a few people can’t have this experience, than no one should be allowed to. I can only hope that the changes orientation is undergoing give it the same effect on new students that SWAT had on me, but I know that there is nothing that can replace that incredible experience.

    And E2 – you guys are amazing and wonderful people. I love you all!

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