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Two years ago, I left home to begin college life; 36 hours later I found myself snuggled up against nine restless strangers under a tarp on the First-Year Outdoor Program. I was linked to these people only by our newbie status at Harvard and our random placement on this particular FOP trip; yet in only five days, we had become a family.
I have been on four subsequent trips with FOP—each unique and foundational to how I will remember my time in college. But no matter how hard I try, I am unable to replicate the magic of a FOP trip back on campus. As we all embark on a new year of school, I have been thinking: What is it about FOP that is so meaningful, and why do we confine this incredible intimacy and fulfillment to pre-orientation time?
William Cronon, an influential environmental historian, writes in an essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness” of our tendency to define wilderness narrowly: It is not here, but out there. Wilderness evokes pristine lands untouched by humankind, towering palisades, raging waterfalls, majestic mountains. For Cronon, the trouble is that an understanding of wilderness that precludes the settings of our day-to-day lives excludes us from appreciating and protecting the here and now.
A similar trouble exists within ourselves—a discrepancy between how we live and feel out in the woods and how we live and feel during the rest of our time at Harvard. When we go out into the woods with nine other strangers for companionship and nothing to do but hike, build tarps, and eat peanut butter, we become the most sublime versions of ourselves—our majestic mountain selves, so to speak. But back on campus, as work piles up, commitments accumulate, and we feel ourselves being tugged in 10 million directions, we stop appreciating and protecting the majestic mountain versions of ourselves.
On FOP, each hike brings a conversation with someone new until we know every single person in the group. It takes place over only several days, but the “knowing” is real. It’s not the Annenberg trifecta—Name? Dorm? Hometown?—but rather, “Tell me about something that you love”; “When was the first time you felt like an adult?” and “What scares you about leaving home?” Our relationships on trail have depth, whereas during the semester, all too often, it is width we are after. That’s what networking is, after all— widening our circles. But in the woods, we invest.
On FOP, we take chances with our relationships, sharing things that we never thought we’d tell people who we met three days ago. And the people in whom we are confiding are people who we never thought would be our friends. Although these people are very different from ourselves, we are not afraid to ask them for help when we need it. Our strength comes from togetherness. And in togetherness, we are able to be completely present. A vibrating cell phone becomes a faint memory, an inbox brimming with unread messages a cruel illusion.
But back on campus, our aversion to vulnerability and burdensomeness prevents us from asking for help and deeply connecting with our amazing peers. The forces of the universe conspire against us being truly present. It is near impossible to focus all of our faculties on one person or task. We follow our G Cals around like robots. We arrive at a meeting only to begin thinking about the next one. We buy shoes online during lecture. We dine with iPhone-dazed blockmates.
Cronon is right. We can’t just think of the wilderness as something that is out there. It is right here, too. The spirit of FOP need not be squandered come September 1. We can extend the mindset that is found so easily out in the woods into our lives all year on campus. If we commit to it and work thoughtfully to build supportive communities, our best, happiest selves can be cultivated and nurtured here at Harvard.
Today, the freedom of summer is still in our eyes, and the spirit of “Camp Harvard” is in the air. But as problem sets get tougher, paper due dates approach, and our planners become fuller and fuller, I am afraid we will forget about all of these things that make our time out in the woods on FOP the best part of college. But we don’t have to. So with intentionality, I challenge us all to work this year to throw our energy into relationships with new people, share pieces of our authentic selves with others, reach out to people who are very different, ask for help, and strive to be completely present where we are.
Whether you went on FOP or not, love the outdoors or hate them, will graduate this year or in four, we all can choose to be the majestic mountain in Harvard Yard.
Hannah M. Borowsky ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Leverett House.
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