Last spring, Hopkins released details for its optional Pre-Orientation (Pre-O) program offerings as the Class of 2027 prepared to embark on their college journey. While most program choices were similar to prior years, the previously free programs now came with a cost of $250 (excepting those for scholar-selected students, which remained free). The outdoor Pre-O program, made up of multiple outdoor trips, was canceled altogether.
The outdoor Pre-O program used to be collaboratively run by the Johns Hopkins Outdoors Club (JHOC) and Outdoor Pursuits, both of which are under the Office of Experiential Education in the Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center. Other than during the pandemic, this Pre-O program had been available for over 25 years.
In an interview with The News-Letter, freshman Kirsten Llaguno expressed that she was disappointed after hearing the news that she could not participate in the outdoor trips.
“I really wanted to have a good transition into college life,” she said. “I wanted to have that new experience as well as grow a social circle and have a support system before classes start and things get a little more difficult, so I definitely wanted to do outdoor Pre-O.”
In an email to The News-Letter, Jake Olkkola, the deputy director of athletics, explained that this decision was made due to the absence of professional staff members to supervise the program.
“The change this year is one we hope will be temporary, based on staffing,” he wrote. “Both of our full-time employees who oversee this program are departing [Hopkins], and, as a result, we felt cancellation was the best decision for this year. Ensuring the high-quality nature of these programs takes a lot of time and preparation that we could not guarantee.”
According to Olkkola, University’s officials determined that it would be best to cancel the program given the complex logistics and components necessary for it to run safely. He added that administrators met with several club members to clarify the situation and their intent.
However, Eleni Daskopoulou, director of JHOC, voiced that there was a lack of communication between the University, JHOC and Outdoor Pursuits. In fact, the University announced the cancellation on their website before notifying them.
Daskopoulou described the lack of transparency in this decision-making process in an interview with The News-Letter.
“When the first professional staff left, we had one month's notice, which was not ideal. The second staff told us they were leaving only when we found out that Pre-O was getting canceled, and even they didn't know that it was getting canceled,” she said. “It was a completely separate decision, and we had no communication about it. We didn't have the information to make a plan moving forward.”
Despite these problems, Daskopoulou said she doesn’t disagree with the University’s risk management concerns. However, she shared that most of the risk management work can be completed prior to the trips; the leaders plan escape routes and identify the closest hospital, which then gets approved by professional staff beforehand. Additionally, she noted that the staff aren’t on the field, so student leaders execute any risk management in an emergency.
Moreover, Daskopoulou stressed that, if they had been informed earlier, they may have been able to run the trips after resolving the risk management issues and adjusting the trips to fit the circumstance.
“We could have limited our technical trips and outsourced some of the activities that involve more risk,” she said. “Then, I believe that we could have safely run Pre-O with the people that we have right now in the program if we had the necessary support and if people wanted to put in the effort.”
In an interview with The News-Letter, Weston Fortney, the recruiting manager at JHOC, mentioned that he had been on the outdoor Pre-O trip as an incoming freshman. He believed that the trip was a good introduction to college for him.
Furthermore, Fortney highlighted that the outdoor Pre-O trip is valuable to both incoming students and current students who lead the trip.
“I think the trip is a good way to make friends. I know a lot of people from my group and other peer groups are still really good friends,” he said. “It’s also really important to our program for recruiting members. Pre-O is what everybody in the program looks forward to leading, so it's really sad to see it disappear like this.”
Daskopoulou echoed similar concerns regarding recruitment and leadership training. She stated that the program had historically been an integral part of training new leaders, as it is the only week-long trip held by the organization. Their training is now delayed and needs to be adjusted.
Nevertheless, Daskopoulou emphasized JHOC’s commitment to bringing back the program next year. She also shared that many students unaffiliated with the program approached them to voice concerns and provide assistance. Some students started an online petition against the decision, which was signed by 440 people.
In an email to The News-Letter, freshman Sienna White remarked that the changes in Pre-O programs curtailed her interest in participating in them.
“I had been super interested in the outdoor orientation trips, especially the backpacking, kayaking, canoeing and hiking ones,” she wrote. “My interests have fallen short with the changes that the school has made to the pre-orientation trips this year, and, while I believe they can still be enjoyable, I think many students will be disappointed regarding the limited opportunities.”
In addition to the cancellation of outdoor trips, some students were puzzled by the new $250 charge to participate in Pre-O programs such as HopkinsCORPS and Baltimore Arts, amongst others. These programs were provided last year for free.
Freshman Jason Ahn commented in an interview with The News-Letter that it would have been better if the University clarified the reasons for this change to the public.
“I just want them to give out the reasons and open up because that is a bit of an amount to pay,” he said. “If others did not have to pay before, then my thought would be, ‘Why would we have to pay?’”
Nevertheless, students who participated in the Pre-O programs showed great enthusiasm about their experiences. Freshman Bersu Mulugeta participated in the International Student Orientation and said that the program was worth its price tag in an interview with The News-Letter.
“I definitely think it was worth it, partly because the move-in day was much earlier too,“ she said. “Getting the chance to move in early, to explore Baltimore and D.C. areas and have a little bit of time to get adjusted before everyone else came in made the transition process much easier for me.”
Hernan Mansilla, another freshman who was part of the International Student Orientation, also had a positive Pre-O experience. In an interview with The News-Letter, he stated that he enjoyed connecting with mentors and meeting other students, especially since it allowed him to make friends before the start of school.
However, he acknowledged that on a purely material basis, the program may not have been worth $250.
“They did take us on a trip to D.C., but we still had to use dining dollars and meal swipes for food. It was mostly the guides bringing us to places instead of paying for things,“ he said. “Still, I’m really glad I did the orientation and I think it was worth it on the meeting people side of it.”
Olkkola emphasized that the funding to make Pre-O programs free for all students was always temporary and designed to help students and families during the pandemic and beyond.
“Pre-O will continue to remain free for any student on financial aid or who asks for help in covering the cost,” he wrote. “There is an option on the registration page to ask for financial assistance in covering the cost; this remains a discreet way for students to indicate they would like financial help in funding the cost of the trip.”