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A college orientation that really gets wild

Unity College celebrates 30 years of adventure-based orientation trips

Starting college is difficult. It means leaving friends, family and home to start a completely new life in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers. And while the typical college orientation is a great step in familiarizing students with the policies, schedules and expectations of college life, Unity College believes there’s only one way to really start school off right.

Where better to prepare for life at America’s Environmental College than exploring the beautiful lands, communities, and waters of Maine?

For 30 years, Unity College’s Nova program has brought new college students closer to Maine, nature,and each other, through adventure-based orientation trips that take place throughout the summer, and across the entire state of Maine, before classes even begin. Instead of diving straight into Unity as a first year student, wandering around campus and picking classes, college leaders feel it is important for incoming students to first experience the environment and build social connections, creating a solid foundation for the imminent transition to college life.

“One reason we strongly believe in Nova is that you cannot be a student of the environment if you don’t go out and experience it,” Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said. “It’s important to spend some time understanding what you are working for. For me, it really sets the stage for the next four years and contextualizes the education these students are about to receive.”

Nova trips entail a mix of canoeing, kayaking, backpacking, primitive skills, community-building and service projects in locations across Maine. From Aroostook County to the Coast to the far west mountains of Grafton Notch, groups of up to 12 students spend five days together in the Maine wilderness, learning survival skills and forming bonds that will see them through their first few weeks of college  —  or even the rest of their lives.

There are no cell phones. No parents. No staff. No faculty. Just students connecting with their peers and sharing their hopes, fears and passions.

“They go out in these small groups and they create a family,” Outdoor Adventure Center Director Jes Steele said. “These students go on the trips not fully understanding what they’re getting themselves into. But I’ll tell you — when they return, they’re dirty, they’re stinky and they’re happy. They’re singing songs, they’re expressing their appreciation for their leaders, and they’re excited about being part of the community here at Unity. You have this trip once and that is it: that story lives with you forever.”

The benefits of outdoor orientation programs at four-year colleges has been well-documented over the past 50 years. In one of the most rigorous and controlled studies done to date, University of New Hampshire Professor Michael A. Gass found that participation in a wilderness orientation program at UNH produced higher grade averages, higher retention rates, and positive changes in student development behaviors when compared with peers that participated in a typical required orientation program. Documented gains from other studies include personal growth and a positive effect on participants’ social skills and networks.

After 30 years of programming, many Unity College students and officials know these effects firsthand. Nova trips are actually led by Unity College students with a vested interest in adventure education, all of whom hold hold various wilderness certifications: Leave No Trace Trainer, Unity College van certified, and Wilderness First Responder or EMT. Most of the staff also have other certifications and qualifications in diverse fields such as Swift Water Rescue Certification, American Canoe Association Canoe Instruction, Maine Recreational Guide, and even Yoga Instruction.

Students on Nova are actively involved with all aspects of their outdoor orientation, including planning, cooking, decision making, risk management, and other camp-related responsibilities. They depend on each other, and each trip really comes down to what the students make of it.

“Starting college can be a challenging time for many students and their families. The departure from home is a significant milestone for everyone, and a huge leap in independence,” Chief Student Success Officer Sarah Cunningham said. “Nova allows our students to really get to know each other and this beautiful state they’ll soon call home, without the added stresses of a standard college orientation. Their first real experience with us isn’t about the how-tos of college life. It’s about connecting with the environment and each other.”

Summer Nova trips are scheduled each week from July through late August, with 26 separate groups trekking out over the course of the program. Winter Nova trips run during Unity College’s winter break, right before spring classes begin.