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By Matt McDonald
When my Odyssey leader parked the van beside the Cascade Mountain trailhead, one of the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondack Park, I couldn’t hop out the door fast enough.
Beyond two rises and a couple miles of dense trees, I saw the summit — an alpine crown of exposed rock. I had hiked a slew of peaks in my 18 years, but never as a college student. I zipped my jacket, buckled my backpack and took a step. Then a girl in my group said, “Wow. I’ve never seen a mountain before.”
Odyssey, SUNY Plattsburgh’s wilderness orientation program, gives incoming freshmen the chance to socialize and explore for a week before classes begin. They hike two peaks, climb real rock, navigate a high ropes course and kayak on Lake Champlain, along with various other team-building activities. The program uses Twin Valleys, a Plattsburgh-owned facility with cabins and a dining hall, as home base. For many, Odyssey is a step outside their comfort zone.
“I was in a very non-social shell when I went to Odyssey,” said senior Ben Lillibridge. “I remember pulling up and being super scared and thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this.’” But moments after he met his Odyssey leader, he began to settle in.
“I thought, ‘Yes. This is it.’”
I met Ben the day before the Cascade hike. Although he was nervous, he’d also had previous outdoor experience. The girl in my group, who I soon learned was from the Bronx, did not.
Sarah Henley, who has coordinated Odyssey for six years, said most freshmen who participate in Odyssey are new to the outdoors — that’s why two leaders, often expeditionary studies students who attended Odyssey themselves, guide them through the activities.
“It’s a very supportive environment. The activities are challenge-by-choice,” she said.
In addition to the Odyssey leaders, outdoor experts also help facilitate the program’s activities. Steve Maynard, an internationally recognized kayak instructor and assistant professor in expeditionary studies, taught me how to paddle. And the next day, I learned to rock climb with Sarah’s husband, Expeditionary Studies Assistant Professor Casey Henley, who has guided, climbed and skied on almost every continent.
Wilderness orientation programs are also designed to improve student GPA and retention rates — trends supported by multiple studies, Sarah said. And while it’s cool to hike, climb, kayak and explore, Odyssey’s mission focuses on what the activities do for students.
“Those activities are all means to accomplishing this other goal,” she said. “Feeling part of this community, pushing yourself, being challenged — and through challenge becoming more self-confident.
“Students get dropped off and have this amazing experience, gain these really solid friendships, then go off to college feeling strong and solid. Community is a huge part of people succeeding.”
Odyssey gave me, Ben and our peers a head start on making friends in college.
“It was cool because nobody was coming from a social group,” he said. “We were all individuals seeking a new experience. It’s where I met my best friends.”
Although Sarah wishes she could include more, 60 students is the maximum logistically feasible number. Interested students can learn more and register by visiting http://www.plattsburgh.edu/studentlife/odyssey. But incoming freshmen aren’t the only people excited for Odyssey 2014.
Ben is counting the days until his Odyssey return. This time around, he’ll be one of the leaders.
“I want to be on the giving end,” he said, “to help facilitate the awesome experiences that set the tone for my college life.”
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