Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 25, 2022
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COURTESY OF JACKIE RITTENHOUSE

Through her experiences leading a pre-orientation program, Rittenhouse looks back on the changes and constants of her past four years at college.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed numerous things since it first shut down Hopkins in March 2020. One of those many things has been the outdoors program at Hopkins, a program I am proud to be a member of. 

Every year, the program offers a pre-orientation camping trip to incoming freshmen as a chance for them to meet older and experienced Hopkins students along with other incoming freshmen to make the transition into college somewhat less daunting. 

Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions have prevented this trip from happening since my own pre-orientation camping trip freshman year. After years of failed attempts at socially distanced activities and numerous missed chances to interact with new members, I felt somewhat disconnected from the outdoors program.

Thus, I was hesitant to sign up to lead pre-orientation despite it being the first opportunity to do so in years — and my last opportunity to lead it. At the encouragement of my sister and the desperation of my boss, I signed up to lead as a last hoorah of my time in the outdoors program (and I’m so glad I did).

This brings me to three weeks ago, when I anxiously met a group of freshmen whose safety, well-being and happiness would be my responsibility for an entire week in the woods — less than 24 hours after our first ice breaker. 

It was a daunting introduction, given how I still felt like that apprehensive freshman from three (THREE?!) years ago, walking into the gym with its looming rafters and echoing hallways. At that time, even though I was mostly excited to start experiencing all the wonderful things you hear about college, I was also extremely anxious, mainly about two things: flunking out of college and making friends. 

Now, I’ve made it to my senior year, and I’m proud to say I’m surrounded by people I love dearly who love me just as much. I’ve been doing pretty well so far, but I still remember the anxiety of freshman year, so I could empathize with the freshmen I was leading.

After going through an action-packed week with my pre-orientation group, filled with numerous highs with (thankfully) only a couple lows, I began to reflect on everything that has changed in the span of time between my own pre-orientation experience as an incoming freshman and my experience leading the trip as a college senior.

Since thinking through all of the ups and downs of the past three years, I’ve become more self-assured in my actions and confident in my abilities. I’m comfortable raising my hand in class, emailing professors with questions or reaching out for opportunities in research or otherwise, even if I may not be the most decorated applicant. 

Mostly, I think this happened gradually and more or less passively. I like to think of it as ‘competence acquired through experience’. Yes, it took four years of forcing myself to try new things and experience life outside of my comfort zone to get to this point, but I'm much better for it.

On top of all of the soft skills I’ve gained, I’ve learned so many technical and leadership skills from my time in the outdoors program. 

I’ve learned how to save someone from a hazardous swift-water scenario (which awarded me the title of Ultimate Girlboss during pre-orientation). I've learned how to set up a top rope anchor in the woods that was secure enough for multiple people to climb. I've learned how to lead and facilitate meaningful and intimate conversations among people that have barely known each other for two days. 

I’ve learned how to bake brownies in the woods while missing numerous key ingredients (no, they never really turn out great). I’ve learned how to safely partake in ‘inherently dangerous activities’ like white water kayaking. I’ve even learned how to jerry rig not one, not two, but three different camping stoves.

Despite all of these wonderful lessons I’ve learned and all the growth I’ve undergone, there are still parts of me that have stubbornly not changed since freshman year. 

I’m still constantly learning how to strike a balance in everything I do: a balance between academics and everything outside of it; a balance between pushing myself to experience things outside of my comfort zone and letting myself relax and heal and even a balance between how much money goes into and out of my bank account (budgeting tips welcome). 

Even after all the new I’ve experienced, I’m still apprehensive about my future. Even though the scary new things used to be college classes and finding people to eat with at the cafeteria and choosing where and who to sit next to on my first day of classes, now it's what I’m supposed to do after college or how I’m supposed to have any semblance of an idea about what I want to do career-wise. 

I’m even still trying to learn how to study. You'd think after how many years I’ve been in school and even in college at a ‘prestigious institution’ that I'd pick up a thing or two about studying, but I'm still trying to test out Quizlet flashcard sets and I’m still reading over my nonsensical notes from lectures. 

If it's not apparent yet, I've grown a lot since I first stepped onto campus to meet my pre-orientation group and head off into the woods. Of course, I still have a lot of growth and learning and development to go. Life and growing pains don’t end after college; there's still so much to experience and learn. So here's to many more years of growth and stubbornness!

Jackie Rittenhouse is a senior from San Mateo, Calif. majoring in Psychology and Anthropology. Her column, Reminiscing and Revelations, explores the experiences that have shaped the person she is today.

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