Every year, just before the start of fall quarter, a handful of incoming freshmen trek off into the quiet wilderness to explore their new surroundings and get a jump on making friends at Western Washington University.
The WOOT! (Western Outdoor Orientation Trips) program, part of the Associated Students Outdoor Center and Student Outreach Services, allow students to bond while hiking through the Mount Baker foothills, kayaking the San Juans or exploring the vast North Cascades wilderness.
It’s an experience the students never forget.
“You arrive and everyone is just so awkward and stand-offish,” says Jasper Gibson, a Western junior who’s made three WOOT trips, this past time as a head trip leader. “But by the end of the week, everyone is best friends; they can’t stop talking with each other. It’s an awesome transformation to watch.”
What helps students get so close in just a week?
Well, for starters, they don’t have cell phones and computers. For an entire week, all they see are the other kids on the trip and the massive wilderness surrounding them. They learn both to rely on each other and to let their guards down, says Marli Williams, who works to organize WOOT! trips each year.
“Even if they don’t stay best friends, there’s this sense that people know me and love me, not in spite of but because of my quirkiness,” Williams says. “The students think, ‘I belong here; there are people who know me, and I can count on them if I need something.”
There’s something about being out in the wilderness, living on their own skills and ingenuity and on the help of their friends, that’s freeing for people, she adds.
Here's how Rikki Dunn, a Western alumnus and veteran of many WOOT! trips, describes the experience (in an excellent blog post that also features a handful of stunning photos):
This is where it’s at! This is why these programs are so powerful. It’s the indescribable mojo that no current research has been able to quantify. The way I think of it is this. You strip away all the distractions: the cell phones, televisions, computers and tablets. You turn down the volume, eliminating the sounds of honking cars, ring tones, and construction. You set aside expectations, judgements, and the pressures of society. You slow down the pace of life and live simply. This gives the students an opportunity that they probably have never had before. An opportunity to look inside themselves and find out who they truly are and who they want to be. They have the opportunity to be goofy, silly, wild, and crazy. To think about where they are coming from and where they are going. They have the opportunity to be authentic, and thats when the magic happens. Thats when real, long lasting relationships are formed. This gives students a strong support network of friends deal with the challenges of transitioning in to college life.
Gibson, who trekked with WOOT through the Chuckanuts as a WWU freshman and last year served on that same trip as an apprentice leader, went this year as a head trip leader and as a videographer to Rainbow and McAlester passes near Lake Chelan. He has about a year of video experience, plus five years of photography expertise and “a bunch of good buddies to get tips from.”
Making the video was a blast, says Gibson, who plans to major in outdoor adventure visual journalism at Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies. A junior from Sandpoint, Idaho, Gibson also leads excursions through the Outdoor Center.
“It’s hard to describe sometimes what WOOT is,” Williams says. “But you can see it in people’s faces: uninhibited bliss, joy, laughter, that sense that I can be funny and goofy and not be judged. Seeing that captured on film is a great way to help others get a sense of it.”
The WOOT program is in its fourth year as a pilot program of WWU. Its future is currently being reviewed. For more information on the WOOT program, contact Frederick Collins, Outdoor Center manager, at 360-650-3731.