460 first-years, 108 upperclassmen leaders, 54 trips, 64 vans, and over 2,000 packets of oatmeal later, the 2015 Annual Entering Student Outdoor Program—more commonly known by its acronym, AESOP—has come to a close.
The nation’s only wholly student-run program, AESOP is completely independent from the Bates administration aside from financial support. Three Head Coordinators and three Assistant Coordinators orchestrate everything. Having a student-run program means an orientation experience created by students, for the students.
Planning for this year started in the Fall of 2014 and included hours of scheduling, training, and even a full dry-run of the entire program; just a week prior to the first-year’s arrival, leaders embarked on 13 leadership trips to practice their skills. Leadership preparation plays a large part in the planning, with interviews beginning in the spring before the upcoming year. A week before the program, leaders receive first aid training, risk management training, an LGBT talk, TITLE IX lessons, and thorough gear tutorials. Med kits are filled, petty cash is distributed, park reservations are confirmed, and food is purchased all before the arrival of the first-years.
AESOP became a mandatory portion of Orientation this year, with the exception of Fall athletes who had to remain on campus. Because of this, AESOP’s student coordinators had to add six new trips to accommodate 85 more students of varying interests and backgrounds. Head Coordinators Seniors Sasha Lennon, Jordan Cargill and Natalie Silver, with the help of Junior Assistants Nate Diplock, Audrey Puleio and Jamo Karsten, took on the challenge, extending their roles into the entire Orientation program and received a budget increase from the administration. Coordinators often participated in conceptual meetings with the administration to enhance the new Orientation setup.
“We wanted to make AESOP accessible to kids not necessarily involved in camping. We wanted to give them that “AESOP experience” and still be outdoors in Maine, but with added service, farm work, and art trips,” said Silver. Trips added to the mix included three new base-camping trips in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a Lewiston community service trip, a trip to the nearby Nezinscot Farm to help with the harvest and cook, and an art trip that traveled to Monhegan Island – an artist haven that has produced works currently displayed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
However, unlike previous years, AESOP was no longer the first activity first-years experienced at Bates. Students now partake in two days of Orientation and then embark on their journeys. “We are interested in doing a survey for students and leaders about this new experience. There was definitely an inherent value of having AESOP first,” said Lennon. The Coordinators emphasized that AESOP is a way to experience the Bates culture off of Bates campus.
“The Bates culture really lies in the students,” said Silver. “By giving students the opportunity to experience Bates culture in a small group of 10 is far less overwhelming, and more beneficial, than being thrown into a group of 600 and 1000 people.” Coordinators and Leaders alike strive to put the best parts of Bates forward, which they feared may have been compromised by placing the program in the middle of the Orientation schedule.
“You are the first thing they are saying on campus,” said Silver. “You show them sober fun in a safe, highly-controlled space for their first four or five days of college.”
“[First-years] get more of a sense of self before there are social pressures,” added Lennon. The change is said to help accommodate parents who could not return to Bates after AESOP to participate in Parent Orientation.
First-year Michael Cooper of Alta, California enjoyed his first time hiking within the tree line on the east coast. “I’m super excited to be in Maine; it is definitely different,” Cooper said. “Our group was really awesome. We have all continued to hang out.” However, Cooper cited the hectic nature of the first two days of Orientation before the trip. “It was hard to rush and move in, while getting ready for AESOP,” Cooper said. But in the end, it was worth it for students, leaders, and coordinators. One student, who Cargill and Silver had to evac out of the trip after the first day due to illness, said that even in her short time, she already felt connected to her group members.
“The best part of being a coordinator was seeing the last day when the vans roll in and watching groups laughing and feeling integrated into Bates,” said Silver. “When they first arrived they looked nervous and uncomfortable, not knowing what to expect. It is a total 180 when they come back, which is what we were hoping for in the program.”
Planning for the Fall 2016 AESOP will begin this November, where this year’s Assistant Coordinators will take the lead.