Water is iodized. Hotspots are attended to. Tense moments are shared in the dead of night when a mouse moving around camp is easily confused for a bear. Williams Outdoor Orientation For Living as First-years (WOOLF) is in full swing, and sophomore leaders are responsible for as many as 10 first-years in the woods. WOOLF, the largest of the College’s six Ephventures orientation programs, brings over 300 first-years into the wilderness for four days before classes begin to backpack, rock climb, clean up trails, create art, canoe or kayak.
Having been WOOLFies – a term of endearment for first-years in the program – themselves just one year ago, most trip leaders decided to come back to WOOLF for a second and very different experience. Taking on new responsibility, they learned knots, received Wilderness First Aid certification and speed-dated potential co-leaders in preparation for the WOOLF Class of 2019.
Some leaders found themselves well-suited for their position. “As a natural leader, I found myself more comfortable in this role,” said Leading Minds participant and current WOOLF leader Cole Erickson ’18. Others were more concerned with how their trips would pan out. Many leaders were worried about first impressions when meeting their groups and hoped to gain their WOOLFies’ respect. “I’ve never been the ‘cool older person’,” reported leader Anna Neufeld ’18.
For the most part, these social fears were not realized. As put by Kathy Bi ’18, “As a WOOLFie, you’re trying to make friends, but as a leader you automatically have them.” This sentiment was shared by other leaders who were surprised by their WOOLFies’ almost unconditional acceptance.
WOOLFies contributed more than they may realize to their trips. Almost every leader interviewed cited the relationships they formed with their WOOLFies as the best part of their experience. Many didn’t expect these bonds to form so quickly. Leader Andrew Bloniarz ’18 explained that he expected these relationships to follow a “leader-to-WOOLFie” model, but was pleasantly surprised when they felt more “friend-to-friend.” Erickson noted that there was “more hugging than expected.”
Though often helpful during the trips, WOOLFies sometimes did not realize the amount of behind-the-scenes work their leaders put in beyond what WOOLFies saw on the surface. “I was running around like a chicken with its head off,” Bloniarz said. Behind friendly faces and campy attitudes, many leaders were actively pondering the cultivation of positive group dynamics. With an arsenal of ice-breakers and trail games, leaders relentlessly attempted to draw their WOOLFies from their shells, remembering that just a year ago they were in similarly awkward circumstances. They put their training into action – bandaging hot spots and making sure everyone felt comfortable pooping in the woods. Many commented on the unshakable feeling of responsibility for everything that occurred on the trips they led, a major difference from their experience as first-year WOOLFies.
A common source of stress for leaders was cooking meals. Though all leaders are appropriately trained in the safe use of camp stoves, they receive little instruction in the culinary arts. This can result in overhydrated beans, crunchy rice, flavorless pasta and mismanaged vegetables. Neufeld reported that she encountered condescension from her WOOLFies when it became apparent that she did not know how to cook rice.
In cooking and other minor instances of turmoil, leaders found support in their cos. According to Divya Sampath ’18, “Having a co was a big part of why I really enjoyed WOOLF the second time around.” Most co-leaders did not actually know each other before being paired, but all interviewed attested that they were able to form a successful working relationship. Leaders were able to find comfort and confidence in the knowledge that they had a co-leader for backup and support. This support was both emotional and practical, with some leaders relying on their co because they “did not have a firm grasp on hard wilderness skills,” Sampath said, like bear-bagging and tying knots. Many leaders are looking forward to continued friendships with their cos on campus.
For the most part, leaders found that responsibility was not a burden. Many even reported that they had more fun as a WOOLF leader than as a WOOLFie. All hope to maintain relationships with their groups, and none will forget those four days in the woods.