AURORA outdoor orientation program makes freshman connections in virtual format

October 06, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Lindsey Anderson always liked hiking and the outdoors, and she jumped at the chance to participate in Penn State’s outdoor orientation program where she would connect with other incoming freshmen and learn about life at Penn State from upperclassmen.

But, instead of spending five days backpacking in central Pennsylvania, Anderson and 266 of her classmates made their connections through Zoom. Although the way she was interacting with classmates was different than what she expected, Anderson said she still wanted to make those friendships.

“It was important for me to reach out and make connections this year — even through screens,” she said. “I’m really glad I did it because I wouldn’t have met all these great people.”

Anderson participated in Shaver's Creek Environmental Center’s AURORA orientation program, which was redesigned for a virtual format as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. AURORA normally runs four outdoor experiences for incoming freshmen prior to the fall semester in New Hampshire‘s White Mountains, Olympic National Park in Washington, Philadelphia and central Pennsylvania.

Jen Emigh, director of the AURORA program, said the decision was made in March to change the program’s format. She said she wanted to make the decision early enough to give her and her staff enough time to offer a redesigned program that would still deliver the same goals.

“We wanted to make sure students still had an amazing experience. They didn’t get prom, graduation, school sports, and we didn’t want them to be the forgotten class,” she said. “The students and leaders were eager to make sure it happened. I had no idea we would create something that would knock it out of the park the way it did.”

Instead of hiking through trails and sleeping outdoors, this year’s AURORA experience consisted of a combination of asynchronous and synchronous activities, including virtual hikes, interactive national park experiences, personal outdoor activities and nightly Zoom chats with their hiking groups. For the outdoor activities, students were asked to walk around and take photos of themselves experiencing nature.

Emigh said it was still important to have students go outside and notice the human impacts on nature. She said students found that spending time outside helped lower their stress levels.

During the evening sessions, upperclassmen leaders focused on activities that promoted group connectivity and helped debrief the day, facilitating icebreakers and team building activities, and discussing life on campus.

Junior Rachel Cole, one of the group leaders who participated in AURORA in fall 2018, said leaders focused on gently pushing the incoming freshmen out of their comfort zones to help bring them together.

“You didn’t have all that time on the trail this year like in years past, but we still wanted to give them a group of people they could feel comfortable talking with and relying on,” she said. “It’s hard to meet new people, and college is a transition. You need people to go through it with you and have them as a support network.”

Although they’re now on campus, AURORA participants can still connect with their hiking groups. Students came together in their small groups via Zoom for a scheduled meeting in mid-September and will meet one final time on Oct. 7. Students who participated in AURORA earn three general health and wellness credits during the fall semester.

Emigh said there’s now a framework for future virtual iterations of the program, even when AURORA returns outdoors, that will make the orientation program available and accessible to all Penn State students.

“We know life isn’t going back to the way it was before. Life is going to change, and AURORA has been able to change and adapt with the times,” she said. “This new format can be added to our repertoire of programming and will be something for all students to take advantage of.”

For Anderson, it was a memorable experience.

“We were always doing an activity that we didn’t want to stop doing,” she said. “They were fun, interactive and always a good time. I would do it all over again.”

Visit the Shaver’s Creek website for more information on Penn State’s outdoor education lab and nature center. Shaver’s Creek is a Penn State Outreach service.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 08, 2020