November 20, 2017

SOAR Makes a Splash With First-Year Students

Members of Mary Washington’s incoming class traded tablets and cell phones for campfires and bug spray to live off the grid, so to speak, for three days and two nights.

And they loved it.

SOAR experience

More than 48 hours with no Wi-Fi, no social media. Not even showers.

“I didn’t touch my phone all day,” said Abigail Conklin, a first-year student who took part in UMW’s Summer Orientation Adventure Retreat (SOAR). “I didn’t want it. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t need it.”

Held for the first time at UMW’s Eagle Lake Outpost in Stafford County, this year’s SOAR offering was a primitive camping trip with no running water. The program complements the on-campus Orientation activities all first-year students experience and puts budding Eagles in touch with fellow freshmen and natural settings surrounding the city of Fredericksburg.

“I think it’s a really great opportunity for them,” said rising senior and camp leader Daria Fortin as she served grilled cheese sandwiches cooked on a Coleman camp stove. “Besides being outdoors and learning about camping and that kind of stuff, it’s a way for them to bond with each other.”

Part of a 600-acre collection of properties assembled by the UMW Foundation, Eagle Lake Outpost is teeming with streams, a lake filled with lily pads, camping and picnic areas, boats and a dock. The site, established a decade ago off Route 17 in Stafford County, also features four log cabins, including a science-type lab, classroom space and more. Groups of staff and alumni have gathered there over the years, along with environmental science classes for field studies and research.

But SOAR is the site’s first large-scale program, said Foundation CEO Jeff Rountree. “[We] are excited to see such enthusiasm for the Outpost, which has always been one of UMW’s best kept secrets,” he said of the two late-June sessions, which held about 15 campers each and were so popular some had to be waitlisted.

The property provided the perfect low-pressure environment for first-year students, who pitched tents and got up close with nature – frogs, turtles, bunnies and bugs, including fireflies that lit up the night. And they began to form friendships that will grow throughout their college careers.

“I thought it would be a way to make some solid friends,” said Iisak Kukkastenvehmas-Skiggs, who hails from Northern Virginia, en route from London.

Fortin and fellow camp leader Michael Middleton ’16, who’s in Mary Washington’s master’s of education program, steered the agenda. In addition to hiking and water activities, like swimming, boating, tubing and fishing, participants took part in team-building exercises, with ice breakers, campfires, picnic-style meals, sunrise yoga sessions, games and crafts.

“Most of them just finished Orientation so it’s kind of a follow-up experience,” said Graduate Assistant for Fitness and Wellness Erin Hill ’17, who helped organize the event put on by Student Involvement, with help from the offices of Campus Recreation and Orientation. “They get the chance to gather and get to know their fellow freshmen.”

The upperclassmen were on hand to answer questions about life and traditions at Mary Washington, and each session ended with a tubing trip on the Rappahannock River, followed by lunch at Old Mill Park.

“I love this group,” said first-year student Riley Gildea of Waynesboro, Virginia. “I’ve learned so much on this trip. It’s given me a window into college.”