Camping, Climbing, and Kayaking–Welcome to Mason, Freshmen
By Buzz McClain
On a hot summer day two weeks before his first freshman classes were to begin, Adam Hamza found himself 40 feet high on a sheer rock wall, supported only by a climbing rope, a guide, and, on the ground below him, his 17 new best friends. His thoughts, besides pondering where to put his hands and feet next, led him to conclude: “This is a good life to live right now before I go into the concrete world of college. I’m climbing rocks and legit camping with tents and cooking our own food.”
In fact, the rock climbing at Carderock Recreational Area in Maryland was part of his new college career at George Mason University, as was the kayaking on the Potomac, hiking through West Virginia forests, climbing ropes at Mason’s the EDGE facility, and camping in a state park. Hamza, from the Charlottesville, Virginia, area and now a rising senior, was taking part in a class called University 100: Project Peak, a weeklong freshman transition session designed to introduce incoming students, many from out of the region, to other students. The campers, guided by faculty and peer facilitators, discuss common transition issues during their activities and around the nightly campfire. By the end of the week, any fears about college life are diminished and new friendships are cemented.
The 1-credit class continues into the first semester with weekly meetings with those who went together on the Project Peak adventure, further enriching their relationships.
“They come back and say this was just a life-changing experience in so many ways, both personally and in terms of their connection to Mason,” says Elizabeth Bernard, assistant dean of the Transition Resource Center.
Bernard describes the course as having “an aggressive agenda,” and while the action is rustic, the accommodations are not necessarily primitive. Showers and outhouses are nearby in the campgrounds, there is no heavy-duty backcountry hiking, and participants are “challenged by choice,” says Hamza. “If you are adamantly not comfortable doing something, you not required to do it by any means.”
Each session is accompanied by a trip leader, who manages the wilderness and safety aspects, along with a University 100 faculty member and a vetted peer advisor, all of whom help facilitate the camaraderie developed during the adventure.
“We have everyone from novices to Eagle Scouts come along,” says Bernard. “We find out who has useful skills and strengths and then we work together.”
“The peer advisor connects the bumpy rapids of the river with having friends help you through hard times,” says Harriet Flynn, a rising junior health, fitness, and recreation resources major from Pittsburgh who will advise a Project Peak adventure this summer. “The EDGE can represent conflict resolution with a roommate or balancing activities and job; it all relates back to [college life].”
Do the metaphors ever get heavy-handed? “The students don’t even realize it’s happening,” Flynn says. She adds that the survival skills learned during the week go beyond how to navigate a river riffle in a kayak.
“Some students have never been grocery shopping, but with Peak they have to go shopping,” Flynn continues. “[They] have a budget, plan a meal, and figure out how much of everything to buy and keep it under the amount of money they’re allowed.”
Now, that’s adventure.
Hamza had additional riffle: “Being Muslim, I was fasting during it, with no food or water during daylight hours. The others were looking at me like, how are you doing this? I honestly don’t know, but it was really fun.
“Project Peak took care of the awkward stage of trying to get to know new people. It gives you a foundation of people on tap. Right off the bat, I had 20 other people that I knew really well and could say, ‘Hey, you want to grab a bite with me at Southside?’ or ‘I’m going to this thing, do you want to go with me?’ It gave me friends going in, which, going into a new environment, I thought was really important. I significantly enjoyed it, and I’ve recommended it for three years to any incoming freshmen. If you can do it, do it.”
But the highest compliment to the program may be the one Bernard hears at Orientation. “Parents always ask us, can you do one of these for us?”