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Outdoor Action

Leadership Starts Here

The Outdoor Action Diversity & Inclusion Initiative

Creating a campus culture that values and respects diversity and encourages students to engage in civil discourse is one of the principal tenets of Princeton’s mission. The Outdoor Action Program addresses this issue as a core value in every aspect of our programming. Our primary vehicles are through small group experiential learning opportunities in the outdoors and through our student leadership development program.

The original proposal establishing Outdoor Action identified these core principles which have guided the program for over forty years:

  • Our goal is to foster group interaction in a context which elicits trusts, requires compassion, provides support for each individual, and encourages mutual respect.
  • The degree to which individuals feel a part of a community is measured by the extent to which persons within it express and show concern for one another—sometimes at the expense of personal comfort or pleasure.
  • We strive to encourage personal growth and greater self-confidence through activities which make challenging demands upon the participants.

All of these build an intentional micro-community that is representative of the larger community students will encounter on campus.

The Outdoor Action Model

All Outdoor Action programs begin with the premise that all people deserve to be treated with respect for their beliefs and that they should extend that respect to everyone else. According to research by Princeton Social Psychologist Susan T. Fiske, the most successful format for countering unconscious bias is to bring a small diverse group together around a shared task goal where they need to rely on each other for success. In the Outdoor Action Program, we utilize the experience of a multi-day outdoor trip to bring a group of students together in pursuit of a common goal where they must cooperate and collaborate to achieve it. After more than forty years of successful operation, there is no question that the Outdoor Action Model is extremely effective at bringing diverse groups of students together.

Through the Frosh Trip Program, OA develops intentional communities of diverse individuals from across the incoming freshmen class.  This is accomplished through a carefully crafted sequence of group interactions and learning experiences.  The first goal is to establish shared community values of diversity and inclusiveness, which lays the groundwork for subsequent meaningful interactions. Then, OA utilizes a series of structured personal story activities that allow students to share unique and important aspects of their identity with the group.  This self-disclosure highlights commonalities and differences among each member of the group, enhancing trust and breaking down stereotypes.  With this trust established, participants become open to exploring deeper conversations about topics that impact their lives on campus, including social life and alcohol, respecting diversity, and taking responsibility for fellow members of the community.

Intentional prompting by leaders amplifies the opportunities and depth of conversations about diversity and inclusion; OA leaders craft the entire experience into a meaningful exposure to new environments and new ways of thinking.  At the very beginning of every OA trip, each group creates a “Full Value Contract” (FVC) which collectively sets community values that are embodied by the group for the week and serve as a model for being a member of the larger campus community.  Leaders set expectations for appropriate behavior, emphasizing respectful and civil interactions where participants are encouraged to explore their similarities and appreciate their differences.  Each participant contributes to defining the group contract, allowing everyone to have a role in shaping the community.  The goal of the FVC is to “fully value” each member of the group for who they are as an individual and how they uniquely contribute to a community. We incorporate the concept of “Challenge by Choice” on the FVC to encourage participants to make the choice to push the boundaries of their comfort zones and explore something different.  Choosing to challenge their unconscious assumptions about others teaches participants to appreciate the unexpected qualities of the other people in the group.

One of the unique aspects of the Outdoor Action Model which make this so effective at building intentional communities is that group members are dependent on each other to fulfill their basic human needs, creating common goals for the group to work towards together.  Throughout an OA trip, leaders and participants are completely immersed in the experience; they are fully-engaged with the other members of the group without the distractions of technology.  In the OA small group setting, the community’s values have real-time impact, and each individual’s choices have immediate consequences for the entire group. The interdependence highlights the interconnectedness of everyone in the group and each person’s responsibilities to the broader community on campus.  Leaders teach participants to look out for each other on the trip, which encourages participants to apply that same value by taking care of others back on campus. We want to instill in each participant a sense of responsibility for their peers and the courage to step up when they witness someone else behaving in a way that violates University values.

The OA Frosh Trip Program has become an essential vehicle for orienting new students to Princeton. Each year over half of the incoming class has their first exposure to University life through the OA Frosh Trip.  The success of the OA Frosh Trip over the past forty years has prompted the University to consider expanding this experience to include all incoming freshmen. The Outdoor Action Model for exploring community values has been adopted by colleges across the country, making the OA Frosh Trip the most emulated of any college outdoor pre-orientation program.  

OA's real success lies in the quality of its activities. OA programs promote friendship and understanding among races, socioeconomic groups, age groups and nationalities, in a way that no academic program could ever parallel, and in a way which social life on the Princeton Campus rarely, if ever, provides. The values of social responsibility, and the quality of our environment, of leadership, sensitivity, humility, and restraint in the face of adverse conditions and a plurality of views, are issues that surface on every OA trip, at every stage of its planning and execution. In other words, outdoor recreation, as practiced by OA at Princeton, is part of what education is all about.

              - Dimitri Gondicas '78, Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies

OA Student Leadership Development Program

The Outdoor Action Model is facilitated by over 300 trained student leaders, making the OA Student Leadership Development Program is the other core element of Outdoor Action’s mission. OA facilitates a process of encouraging self-growth and personal discovery for each leader that allows them to take on the significant responsibility of the personal growth of their peers. During the academic year, a significant part of OA’s activities are focused on the training and development of over 100 new student leaders and the ongoing development of current leaders.

Well-trained student leaders are the core of Outdoor Action, so it is essential to the success of the program that we provide the best professional training and ongoing mentoring for student leaders. The OA Leadership Development Program is Princeton’s most comprehensive student leadership development program. Becoming an effective Outdoor Action Leader requires much more than learning outdoor skills; it requires mastering decision making, conflict resolution, facilitating group discussions, mentoring participants, and listening and communication skills—all of which is taught through a values-oriented framework that encourages diversity and tolerance. 

OA Leaders complete over 140 hours of experientially-based training, allowing them to practice their leadership skills prior to assuming actual leadership responsibilities. OA is unique in college outdoor education programs in allowing all interested students to participate in the benefits of the leader training program. The primary reason that students become OA Leaders is to welcome freshmen and develop their own skills as a leader. OA’s Leader Training Program impacts the campus at large through the involvement OA Leaders have across the campus employing their leadership skills on varsity sports teams, student organizations, community service activities, as Residential College Advisors, etc. Students consistently report that serving as an OA Leader has been one of their most significant learning experiences at Princeton.  

The most important lesson I learned as an OA Leader  is self-awareness: Understanding what I am doing and how my decisions will affect others. From self-awareness comes the ability to reflect, which is a crucial step towards improving one’s leadership. Another part of this improvement comes from the ability to both give and receive constructive feedback on a leadership experience. Finally, a good leader demonstrates flexibility and resiliency; she is willing to adapt to new situations and is not fazed by successive challenges that seem impossible to overcome. With all of these characteristics, an individual is prepared to respond to new situations and able to continually improve her course of action; anyone is able to follow a detailed list of instructions to accomplish a pre-determined goal, but strong leadership is necessary to overcome the new and unexpected situations.

- An OA Leader Trainer, Class of 2014