This year a record number of more than 200 first-year students at Washington and Lee University are spending five days in one of two “Leading Edge” pre-orientation programs. Appalachian Adventures takes students backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. Volunteer Ventures is a service-learning program that educates students about the realities of poverty by living, learning and working in various communities along the East Coast.
“Both pre-orientation programs have more trips this year and more participants,” said David Leonard, associate dean of student affairs and dean of first-year students. “But we’re also seeing more students coming back to lead the trips as well, sometimes for the second time in a row and in some cases for the third time.”
For Appalachian Adventures trip planner, junior Zachary Zoller, the increase in trip leaders meant spending his summer finding three new trips along the Appalachian Trail. “I’m glad it got bigger this year since more people can take part, because it’s mainly based on the number of trip leaders. So this year we’ve added at least 36 first-year students,” he said. “I guess there was a big boom in the number of trip leaders. We’ve got old ones coming back and a lot of new trip leaders who took part last year. It’s the biggest year it’s ever been.”
All those backpacking trips mean a lot of planning and organizing, which this year was mainly done by junior Ali Pedersen. “I’m organizing all the food, transportation and equipment,” she said. “The burden falls on me, but I have students who are ‘sherpas’ to help me. They don’t go on the trips, but perform tasks such as packing food and gear.”
There are 12 trips on different parts of the Appalachian Trail this year at elevations of 1,000 to 5,000 feet. Each trip has about nine first-year students, with a mix of experienced backpackers and novices. The students hike on average 20 miles in five days and mostly stay overnight in shelters.
Meanwhile, the Volunteer Ventures participants are participating in the program in six different cities – Roanoke, Lexington, Washington, D.C., Greensboro, N.C., Charleston, W.Va., and Richmond.
“I went on the Volunteer Venture trip to Washington, D.C., when I was in my first year,” said Shiri Yadlin, a junior from Irvine, Calif., who is the student coordinator for this year’s programs. “It was one of the best decisions of my college career. It jump started my interest in service and led to my participation in the most fun and rewarding organizations at W&L.”
Each of the trips provides students with a different understanding of community and service needs, emphasizing the impact of mountain culture, civil rights, housing, and urban infrastructure on citizen well-being.
The Leading Edge describes both Appalachian Adventures and Volunteer Ventures as memorable, meaningful and challenging experiences. “Both these programs are designed for people to participate in small group activity, and I think there’s a comfort zone with a small group,” said Leonard. “When the first-year students return they’ll be plum tuckered out, but ready to take on the world in terms of getting indoctrinated into the orientation program and meeting many of their other classmates. It’s a nice precursor for good things to come at Washington and Lee.”