Fabled AESOP trips build first-year solidarity
On a sunny lawn near the Benjamin Mays Center, 80 or so Bates students are playing a game you might call Shoe Confessions.
The game works like musical chairs, except there’s no music and no chairs. Gathered in a big circle, the students aren’t wearing their shoes — instead, they’re standing behind them. One person in the center of the ring reveals to the group something personal. And then all the people who share that characteristic have to scamper across the circle to find somebody else’s shoes to stand behind.
Since there’s one fewer pair of shoes in the circle than there are students, the individual who can’t reach any footwear goes to the center of the ring for the next round of soul-baring.
This day’s confessions reveal, for instance, that only three students have been to India and only six spent the summer in Lewiston. But most of them love the ocean and quite a few have been summer camp counselors — fitting interests for a group that would, in a few days, be leading brand-new Bates students on a variety of adventures in the Annual Entering Student Outdoor Program.
AESOP sends small groups of students hiking, camping, climbing, kayaking and canoeing across northern New England with the aim of helping the newbies make personal connections before classes start. This year’s 80 leaders, working in pairs, will bring more than 250 first-years to destinations from Isle au Haut to Baxter State Park to Vermont’s Long Trail.
“It’s a good way to introduce kids to Bates before they really get to Bates,” explains John Leavitt ’08, who is co-directing the 2007 program with Alida Ovrutsky ’08. “They meet individuals who are experienced with the school. Because, essentially, most first-years have very little experience with the school — they just know they want to go here.”
“AESOP gives you an instant social connection and an instant small group” of acquaintances, Ovrutsky adds.
The joys and challenges of the outdoors tend to forge group solidarity, Ovrutsky explains. “Even though a group might come from all diverse backgrounds, be interested in all different things, upon completing AESOP they have one thing in common: they completed this together.
“Whether it’s backpacking 35 miles on the Appalachian Trail or simply surviving four nights in the woods when you’ve never done it before, AESOP provides you with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of bonding that I don’t think a regular orientation would provide,” she says.
Games like Shoe Confessions speed the bonding. The trip leaders are learning it on this raucous August afternoon near Garcelon Field so they can play it with their first-years in the wild. The leaders will also be trained in wilderness skills and first aid, and their preparation culminates in a three-day, leaders-only shakedown expedition where they try out what they’ve learned.
AESOP showcases Bates values in action. Tapping the College’s longtime emphasis on individual initiative and personal responsibility, AESOP has been organized solely by students for years, and students lead virtually all the trips. (In a typical exception, geology professor Dyk Eusden ’80 is applying his sea kayaking expertise as co-leader of the Isle Haut expedition this year.)
“That puts us up to a really high standard,” Ovrutsky says. “And that’s another thing that makes the program as strong as it is, because everyone takes it really seriously.”
In addition, says Ovrutsky, she and Leavitt have impressed upon trip leaders the importance of keeping in mind Bates egalitarianism.
“We’ve been telling our leaders to remember, when they’re talking to their first-years about Bates life, that everyone’s coming from a different background and that everyone’s interested in different parts of Bates. So they’re catering their trips to every first-year at Bates, not just one subset of people.”
AESOP’s roots reach back to the early 1980s, and the current name of the program was in use by 1990. Expeditions last three or four days and the groups typically number from six to 10 first-years, plus the co-leaders. The trips are rated for difficulty — for instance, a backpacking trek rated Level Five, the hardest category, will include at least one 10-mile day under full pack. Of the types of activities, sailing, surfing and base-camping trips tend to draw the most interest.
This year’s trips begin Aug. 28. The Long Trail in Vermont’s Green Mountains, the oldest long-distance hiking trail in America, is a new destination. Acadia National Park, Isle au Haut and the Presidential Range of the White Mountains are popular trips. “People all want to go to the Presidentials because it’s such a storied range,” Leavitt says.
But Leavitt’s own first-year AESOP experience was on the Level 5 Mahoosuc Notch trip, which he later led as a sophomore and which the program still offers. “I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I made some friends on that program that I’m still pretty close with today.”
“I was already fairly proficient in the outdoors,” he adds, “so basically I learned all about Bates.”