With her hands barely gripping the surface of the mountain, suspended 20 feet above the ground and cheered on by her fellow classmates, Celina Liu could hardly believe that just 24 hours before, her biggest worry wasn't whether she had the strength to hoist herself over the final summit but whether she would fit in at her new home at Johns Hopkins University.
"It's my first time away from home," says Liu, a member of the university's Class of 2023. "I kept thinking, 'Will I be able to make friends? Will I have fun? Will people accept me?'"
Liu, from Forest Hills, New York, is one of the 207 new students taking part in Pre-Orientation, a collection of themed programs held the week before Orientation begins on the university's Homewood campus (most new students will begin arriving later this week). The programs give students a chance to forge connections with one another while participating in off-campus activities.
Liu's rock-climbing trip is part of Pre-Orientation's Experiential Education Program, which offers a variety of outdoor adventures for students who want to start the school year by testing their wilderness survival skills under the supervision of experienced student guides. As part of the Multi Element group—which combines several activities into a single week—Liu and her fellow first-year students rock climb, hike, canoe, and go whitewater rafting in Ohiopyle State Park in southern Pennsylvania. They also camp out and learn essential skills, such as how to prepare meals, set up camp, flip an overturned kayak, and—importantly for this week, as clouds rolled across the state—how to cope with the sudden arrival of a thunderstorm.
During the excursion, students are discouraged from using their phones—in fact, they're encouraged to lose their sense of time completely, relying on the sun and their counselors to keep track of how many hours passed during the day.
On the first morning of the trip, Liu says she was awoken by her counselors shaking everyone's tents, a sudden start to what would be a full day of activities. After a breakfast of pancakes—Liu's first time cooking breakfast, indoors or outdoors, she said—the group began the long hike to the mountain for a day of rock climbing.
"My hands were shaking, but it felt like the good kind of shake. I was pushing myself," Liu says. "It was physical, of course, but if felt more like problem-solving. I had to keep figuring out 'where do my hands go?' By the time I reached the top, I felt so satisfied and accomplished."
In addition to the Experiential Education Program, Pre-Orientation also gives new students opportunities to familiarize themselves with Baltimore. The HopkinsCORPS program, run by the Center for Social Concern, teaches students about the social justice issues that directly impact Baltimore while they stay in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. There's also a Pre-Orientation program run by the JHU chapter of Habitat for Humanity that partners with the regional chapter of the nonprofit to build a Johns Hopkins-sponsored house. HopkinsLEAD—which stands for Leadership, Education, and Advocate Development—introduces first-year students to community leaders throughout Baltimore, giving new Blue Jays the opportunity to meet with individuals working in sustainability, art education, and urban redevelopment.
Additional Pre-O sessions are built around individual student interests, including programs on film, theater, entrepreneurship, and sustainability.
"Pre-Orientation provides a unique opportunity for new students to connect with one another before Orientation begins as a part of a small, intentional group," says Brittany Claridge, assistant director of Pre-Orientation and First Year Experience. "Both nationally and more specifically at Hopkins, Pre-Orientation programs impact a student's sense of belonging and long-term connectedness at Hopkins. We know that Pre-Orientation programs are a great tool to set up our new students for success as they join and begin to navigate the Hopkins community."
After overcoming her nerves at the start of the program, Liu soon bonded with some of her future classmates through get-to-know-you activities and shared experiences. More than a week before her first semester at Hopkins officially begins, she's already having fun and making new friends.