We huddled around the bonfire, smiles softened in the glow of the dimming flames. Voices hushed. Any traces of awkwardness had long melted. We were cocooned by a reassuring sense of connection to nature and to each other. Deep inside some mountains of New Hampshire or Maine, the night sky protected us like a dome above our heads. Our boats waited for us at the lake shoreline, ready for three more days of canoeing.
I never felt so safe outside of my comfort zone.
My entrance to Tufts kicked off through the Tufts Wilderness Orientation (TWO). I know what you’re thinking, that I must be a Patagonia North Face Camelbak outdoors hiking enthusiast. I’m closer to a couch potato. The reason I jumped on this opportunity is because the idea of surviving in the woods terrified me. Fast forward to the last week of August, I found myself in the woods with nine other nervous first-years, many of whom had never camped outside before.
By the end of the trip, we were practically cuddling the bus ride back to Tufts. We had gotten so out of touch with civilization that any signs of it, from road signs to the smell of Burger King, made us laugh with in a special kind of confusion. Our five days in the wilderness felt like a wonderful dream. Somehow, I belonged to a family of people who had been strangers less than a week ago. I could hardly believe college had not even formally started. Removed from the context of the wilderness, back to our devices, would our almost cult-like bond last?
Due to the nature of the first weeks at any college, it wouldn’t be anybody’s fault if our pre-orientation bond unloosened. Any student can tell you how engulfing the transition period is. Everything happens all at once, all too quickly. The cascade of new faces and names is enough to overwhelm your mental and social capacity. New friendships and friend groups emerge. However, our group stayed cohesive. I used to wonder if it all was a stroke of luck, but looking back, I see some clues that suggest otherwise.
Our trip was structured by TWO to foster intentional community-building, a term I hear frequently at Tufts. Our upperclassmen group leaders had gone through weeks of training before our arrival, preparing not only for outdoors trip but also to create a meaningful social experience.
I saw traces of this since day one in the woods. We outlined community guidelines in a Full Value Contract, which may sound like saccharine or juvenile, but reaffirmed our intentions to create a comfortable, inclusive environment. Our nightly ritual around the bonfire had similar effects. Each night around the bonfire, we each shared our daily Rose Bud Thorn, and a handful of people took turns being in the “Spotlight,” answering a set of deep questions that evoked personal stories. During the daytime, our group leaders also led more structured discussions on race, gender, and sexuality. I remember learning the detailed history of indigenous people who used to live in the very land we camped, and having the chance to contemplate legacy of white privilege in the context of outdoors activities.
This is all to say that the trip wasn’t just a five-day outdoors summer camp. Little moments like waking up to a morning chant or first-day icebreakers reminded me of one, but it proved different as our days quickly deepened. Being in the woods (without our phones) added a special twist, but in retrospect, I can see the structure of the program and the traits everyone had that naturally drew us together: an open mind. Whether we canoeing through the morning mist or collecting kindling wood, deep conversations and laughter emerged organically.
Looking back, exotic ‘wilder’ experiences —drinking bleached water, finding “trail fruit,” sleeping on a rock, stretching the boundaries of the five-second rule— lavish my memories. But underlying it all, what continues to warm my heart are the people I shared meaningful experiences and conversations with.
Months later, my group continues the TWO tradition of weekly Wilder Dinners. Every week, I look forward to these mini Sunday get-togethers that ground me to a wonderful group of people. I’m so grateful to still call them my Wilder Family.