OPINION: Pomona, don’t downsize Orientation Adventure

Students stand on a road next to green trees under rocky mountains.
The return of Pomona’s OA deserves celebration, but the changes made to the program are not necessarily for the better, argues guest columnist Samuel Breslow PO ’18. (Courtesy: Outdoor Education Center)

Pomona College’s beloved Orientation Adventure, the four-day trip to world-class destinations, is back. Only it won’t be four days, and the destinations won’t be world class.

The unfortunate twists come as OA returns this fall after a three-year pandemic hiatus. In its new incarnation, it will be three days instead of four, and the trips to world-class outdoor destinations further than two hours from campus will be eliminated, replaced by nearby campgrounds for those who travel off-campus at all. That means no more Channel Islands, no Morro Bay, no Sequoia, no Yosemite.

These changes will severely curtail a tradition that goes all the way back to 1995, when Pomona was one of the first colleges in the country to introduce an outdoor orientation program. OA leaders were told that, in pre-pandemic surveys, it was consistently rated students’ favorite part of orientation — there was no need for an overhaul.

However, the student affairs office has been attempting to do so for years now, beginning with the wildly wrongheaded decision to move it to sophomore year in fall 2018, which was quickly reversed after fierce community pushback. During the pandemic, the departure of both former Outdoor Education Center staffers and the turnover of three quarters of the student body has weakened institutional memory, muting potential resistance.

Pomona has been seeking to shorten orientation overall in response to student feedback that it is overwhelming. “We really had to look at what the schedule would look like, and what we decided was, as great as OA is, that it had to be the thing that was shortened,” Josh Eisenberg, dean of campus life and chief planner of OA, previously told TSL.

The goal is understandable, but OA is the wrong target — shortening it to try to relieve stress makes about as much sense as shortening an overlong workday by cutting down the lunch hour.

OA’s four-day length was an integral part of its success. It provided room to relax and time to form meaningful social connections. As a former OA leader, I fondly remember one of my OAbies jokingly referring to a human knot teamwork game as “a day-4 game,” reflecting that it required a level of comfort with each other that we only achieved toward the end of the trip. At only three days, including transit, unpacking and repacking, students will barely be able to settle in before having to turn around.

The elimination of all destinations further than two hours from campus is equally dismaying. Pre-pandemic trips traveled up to six hours, enabling access to destinations that many of us, particularly low-income students, could only have reached with institutional support. While I’m sure the campgrounds are perfectly nice, they lack the awe factor of a Yosemite and are easily accessible anytime.

This new restriction was motivated by logistical and liability concerns, such as retrieving students with medical emergencies, Eisenberg previously told TSL, echoing that rationale on a recent Zoom call I had with him. These challenges are certainly real, but they’re not new. Pomona met them successfully for nearly a quarter century, and it could continue to do so if it committed.

I do see some potential hope in one change: the introduction of more non-outdoorsy options to try to better accommodate students with disabilities and those uncomfortable with the outdoors. Still, the focus on the outdoors wasn’t random — it was because nature is a uniquely well-suited environment for incoming students to bond, grow and take a breather. I’m skeptical of the administration’s ability to make on-campus OAs an equally engaging alternative and to deliver unique experiences rather than ones students could easily just have independently later on. And the introduction of new trips should not distract us from the misguided changes being made to the old ones.

Many other colleges these days have small outdoor components of orientation, but it was the scale of OA at Pomona — including all incoming students, lasting four days and traveling to some of the top outdoor destinations in the world — that made it special and such a success.

These changes chip away at OA’s essence, turning it into a pale shadow of its former self. I urge the administration to restore OA to its full potential next year so that future students can have the experience they deserve.

Samuel Breslow PO ’18 is a former TSL news editor and OA trip leader. He went on moderate backpacking in the Domelands Wilderness for his OA and led backpacking and Sequoia National Park trips, both of which had a 100% survival rate. He served on O-Team helping run orientation his senior year. He copy edits for the Forward.

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