Improvements to Pre-Orientation 'Small-Group Experiences'

Princeton University aims to be a close-knit community—a second home for its students and a place where lifelong relationships are formed. This community begins developing from the first week students arrive on campus. Freshmen are quickly whisked off to their pre-orientation trips, devoting five days and four nights to the wilderness or to surrounding communities. As it currently stands, all incoming students are placed into either an Outdoor Action (OA), Community Action (CA), or Dialogue and Difference in Action (DDA) trip. As of last year the University also introduced an on-campus program for fall athletes who are unable to travel off-campus due to their preseason schedules. These introductions to Princeton provide students with an immediate friend group and set the tone for the following four years. Thus, it is in the interest of the whole Princeton community that pre-orientation trips are engaging and meaningful experiences. Princeton does a great job making the programs successful, but the Board believes some improvements could be made to further improve the trip experience. Namely, we recommend that more spots for OA be available to accommodate greater demand, that electronics be banned on CA and DDA as well as on OA, and that the closing trip activity when students arrive back on campus be brief and uniform across different trips.

The Board first commends the University for last year instituting a pre-orientation program for fall sport athletes. While fall athletes cannot travel off campus due to their intense preseason schedules, many of the conversations and programming that takes place on the off-campus trips are important for all students to experience. The fall athlete pre-orientation experience is a positive step and helps the University build a more cohesive community among athletes and non-athletes by giving all students a common base of pre-orientation experiences.

Turning to our recommendations for improvement, while OA tends to be the most popular of the three trip options, it can only take around 700 students due to the supplies and leaders available. This limit necessarily places some students into their second choice of a CA or DDA trip. While the Board recognizes Princeton’s interest in this limit, such as students having a diversity of experiences, as well as the logistics regarding resource allocation, we believe it would be beneficial to increase the number of spots for OA such that more students are able to attend their first choice trip. Increasing the number of OA spots will foster enthusiasm on and devotion to the trips and reinforce the notion of “challenge by choice,” as students are more committed to experiences they select than to those they are assigned. Not only would this change improve the experiences of students who prefer OA and are placed on an OA trip, but it would also improve the experiences of students on CA and DDA, because they would be with other students equally enthusiastic about these trips.

We recognize that the current restriction of OA spots is due to limited leaders and supplies, but we urge the University community to take any steps it can to increase the number of OA spots available. In 2015, the fees for students to complete OA Leader training were eliminated, which was a great step in making it more accessible for students to become OA leaders. We encourage our fellow students to consider becoming OA leaders and to participate in this important program welcoming new students to Princeton. It is also a worthwhile investment for the University to purchase more supplies such as tents and sleeping bags if that is what it takes to offer more OA slots. This could be facilitated in part by asking students as soon as they matriculate to offer a tentative, nonbinding ranking of their preferred pre-Orientation trips. Currently, the University does not know trip interest levels until incoming students submit their official trip rankings over the summer. Having this information when incoming students matriculate by May would help give the University more time to accommodate any greater demand for OA.

The Board also strongly encourages that CA and DDA leaders follow the example of their counterparts in OA and prohibit cell phone usage for the duration of the trips. The primary goal of the trips is to facilitate conversations and connections among the incoming class; this goal is inhibited by the use of phones. In OA, students are sent to the wilderness for five days with no phones; this is remarkably successful at fostering camaraderie, in large part because students have no choice but to talk to each other. While CA and DDA trips are generally less remote, the programs should still emulate their outdoor counterpart by collecting students’ phones for those few days to encourage conversations.

Finally, the Board recommends that all of the trips condense their on-campus programming on Friday night. Students have just spent five days in an immersive and intensive experience, and they should be given the opportunity to embark on their own campus experiences as soon as possible upon return. While the pre-orientation programs tend to conclude with a final reflective experience, some groups do these on the trail or bus ride back to campus, while others do them on campus Friday night. We recommend that all trips conclude uniformly with a post-trip debrief dinner so as to provide students with a positive closing moment but also not needlessly drag late when students are eager to explore Princeton.

Outdoor Action, Community Action, and Dialogue and Difference in Action are vital components of our introduction to this University. They foster a sense of community and provide students with immediate friendships and connections. The Board largely approves of Princeton’s implementation of these programs, save for a few aspects that could be improved upon. The limits on OA spots diminish a sense of “challenge by choice,” cell phones should be prohibited across all pre-orientation trips, and the programming when students return to campus Friday night should be brief and uniform across trips. With these changes, the trips will be able to fully live up to their potential as immersive, enjoyable first experiences at Princeton.