By Keith Crawford and Daniel Lovik

Blisters, bear sightings, and burnt meals—who could ask for more?

As Wildcat Wilderness Orientation (WWO) approaches its seventh year of building community and giving students a look into college life, trip participants revel in knowing the many outdoor challenges they encounter are perfect metaphors for the difficult situations freshmen and transfer students face during their years at Chico State and beyond. How better to befriend strangers, seize a chance to try new things, or find peace outside your comfort zone?

WWO offers first-year and transfer students an opportunity to attend multiple-day outdoor excursions as secondary college orientation through the Associated Students’ Adventure Outings (AO)—a student-led organization that hosts year-round outdoor trips. Its proven curriculum is based on extensive research linking outdoor orientation programs with positive student outcomes and an easier transition into college.

Formerly known as Chico Bound, the outdoor education program was revamped and relaunched as Wildcat Wilderness Orientation in summer 2014 and has continued improving ever since. Its name reflects the goal of orienting incoming students toward a healthy college lifestyle, while introducing them to the great outdoors of Northern California.

Students hold a Wildcat Wilderness Orientation sign at the top of a mountain with a colorful sky behind them.
Sunset hikes and sunrise climbs are among the experiences students often say are most memorable. (Photo courtesy of Adventure Outings)

“Coming into college, I honestly had no idea what to expect,” said junior Christina Meylan. “Part of me was really excited to start a new chapter of my life, but there was also the part of me that was scared that I wasn’t going to make any friends and that I was going to miss my family a lot.”

A native of the Bay Area, the exercise physiology major signed up for a trip called the “California Coast Sampler,” where she and other students visited the beach, redwoods, and a fern-filled canyon in summer 2017. While the beauty of the nature they explored has always stuck with her, even more impactful were the diverse personal stories shared by her fellow students that opened her mind about other people’s experiences and gave her a new perspective on what it meant to be independent.

“Unlike regular orientation, it is a longer program that really allows you to get closer with the people who are in it. As a result, it makes it feel as though you have a familiar community in Chico before school even starts,” she said. “Not only did it help me to change my mindset coming into college but it also helped me to make my first friends and feel less nervous when I first arrived in Chico.”

Challenging students to work through their trials in small groups, WWO teaches life skills such as teamwork, time management, leadership, social competence, responsibility, and flexibility. Most importantly, facing these obstacles as a team creates strong bonds that last well after they return home from the adventure.

Students tell stories and laugh around a camp fire, with their tents behind them.
In addition to the designated activities and orientation curriculum, students also enjoy time sharing stories and getting to know their fellow students. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

Senior Haley Coffman said after her backpacking trip to Yosemite four years ago, she would regularly run into her fellow tripmates in the dining hall, in classes, and around campus. Several are still her close friends today—something she couldn’t imagine as an incoming freshman, for whom the idea of living in a new place and making a whole new group of friends was incredibly daunting.

She was also nervous about college as a whole. But after sleeping under the stars and testing herself physically and mentally, the recreation major felt she had the confidence and reassurance to thrive in her new setting.

“I went into my first semester feeling confident and strong. I had just hiked for four days straight with 50 pounds of weight on my back—what couldn’t I do?” Coffman said.

WWO now hosts over 40 incoming students each summer. About 23 percent receive scholarships through the Get Outdoors Fund, which Adventure Outings operates to provide financial assistance for students who otherwise may not be able to afford its outdoor trips.

The summer 2019 trips featured a five-day backpacking and inflatable kayaking trip near the Trinity River, five-day trip camping and exploring the redwoods and oceans along the Northern California coast, a five-day backpacking and rock-climbing trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park, a six-day backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park, and a five-day backpacking adventure through the Trinity Alps wilderness.

A student reads a guide book on rock climbing as students wearing helmets ascend a rock wall behind him.
Rock climbing is one of the many technical skills students have the opportunity to learn, depending on the trip type. Other trips include caving, rafting, and canoeing. (Photo courtesy of Adventure Outings)

Participating students live outside, eat outside, and sleep outside. They get to better know themselves, each other, and nature, all while gaining insight and tips on living a successful, balanced college lifestyle.

“The trip leaders were there to answer any questions we had about college,” said senior Ramond Santana, who attended a trip to Yosemite in 2015. “It relieved some of the anxiety I had, otherwise I would have been coming into Chico State blind.”

A longtime Boy Scout, he was unable to attend traditional orientation and hoped this experience would introduce him to new people. He was surprised by the trip’s intimacy—a campus trait he’s since come to know and embrace.

“Having small personal interaction was foreshadowing coming to Chico and the one-on-one experience I have had in classes and clubs, and the friendliness and openness that Chico has,” the geography major said.

A group of backpackers hikes through a lush green meadow in the Trinity Alps.
Collegiate wilderness orientation programs have existed in the United States for nearly 75 years, and research demonstrates a positive correlation between student retention and participation in general university orientation programs. (Photo courtesy of Adventure Outings)

Each trip contains team-building activities and games that bring the students together in a way only possible in the outdoors, pushing them to find solutions without the resources they are used to. All trips conclude with a “solo experience,” a period of self-reflection where students formulate goals for the next six months and beyond. Trip leaders return the goals to participants the following semester so students can realize their progress.

“I was something I had never done before — consider why I was going to Chico State and what I wanted to do,” Santana said. “One of the goals I set was to try to put myself out there and look into as many groups and organizations as I could to find my niche.”

After attending a five-day trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park, Brooke Tillery (Communication Design, ’19) stayed in contact with some of the other students and became roommates with them in her sophomore and junior years. Cementing her love for the outdoors and adventures, she continued going on AO trips, which made her feel more confident in doing things on her own.

“I just returned from a four-month solo trip around Europe,” she said. “I feel like the confidence I had to go on that trip by myself stemmed from other experiences, like WWO.”  

A student uses hiking poles as she walks through a knee-high creek with her backpacking pack on.
In challenging themselves to try new activities, WWO strives to ensure students will be less nervous about embracing other unknown opportunities college has to offer. (Photo courtesy of Adventure Outings)

Meylan had such a great time, she attended several other AO trips the following semester and continued to make new friends. She also applied to work as an assistant leader for the program and in summer 2019 worked two WWO trips herself—including the same trip she had done as an incoming freshman.

“It was very gratifying to come full circle and get to see how much I had changed since I was on that trip last. It was also really gratifying to help incoming students who were in the same shoes as I was two years ago,” she said. “For me personally, being able to find and join the AO community has helped me improve myself in limitless ways, especially when it comes to my leadership skills, interpersonal skills and, of course, backcountry skills. I also feel as though I have an amazing and supportive community at Chico, and it makes me excited to go to work every day, which I believe boosts my overall happiness, and therefore my overall levels of success with everything I do in my life.”

As Adventure Outings begin planning for 2020, staff members are excited to continue to grow and improve the program, building on work they have already done to establish new activities and multi-sport trips and refining the curriculum to better meet the needs of incoming students. For more information, visit http://wwo.csuchico.edu.

Keith Crawford is the program director for Community Action Volunteers in Education and former assistant coordinator of Adventure Outings. Daniel Lovik is the former student manager of WWO. This story was originally produced in 2015 and updated in 2020.