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Outdoor Action

Leadership Starts Here

The Outdoor Action Program at Princeton: A Twenty Year Perspective


This report was written on the twentieth anniversary of the Outdoor Action Program to identify the unique contributions Outdoor Action has made to Princeton University.


The Outdoor Action Program has been an important program for building community at Princeton for the past twenty years. Outdoor Action activities serve as powerful group bonding experiences that help students develop new friendships, learn leadership skills, increase interpersonal skills, develop concern for the environment, and learn lifelong wilderness skills. The overall success of the program can be seen through the yearly increases in participation and evaluations and studies of participants and leaders. This report documents the history and growth of the program since its founding in 1974.

Outdoor Action History

The Outdoor Action Program (OA) was begun as a pilot project in 1973 by members of the Dean of Students Office to address the issues of isolation experienced by students on campus and to provide an opportunity for increased interpersonal interaction and personal growth. The pilot program involved a small group of entering freshmen who participated in a group wilderness activity in August of 1973. That first trip brought eight entering students together with upperclass leaders. The program was an immediate success as a bonding experience for new Princetonians, an opportunity to meet upperclass students, and a chance to explore the wilderness. Student leaders with wilderness camping skills were recruited and backpacking equipment was purchased, so that the program could serve more students. The next trip, in 1974, had 100 participants. As this expansion was occurring, students and administrators involved in the program felt that Outdoor Action could provide outdoor experiences during the year as well. As a result, OA began offering trips and programs throughout the academic year for all students, faculty, and staff.

From that small beginning, the program has grown to the point that 530 members of the class of ‘97 (46.7%) participated in this year’s Frosh Trip Program and over 40% of all currently enrolled undergraduates have participated in some form of Outdoor Action activity through trips, training programs, or on-campus events throughout the year. Currently there are 300 undergraduate and graduate students who are involved with the program as leaders. It is essential to examine need for such a program at Princeton and how the specific goals of the Outdoor Action Program address these needs. (For detailed information on the OA Frosh Trip Program see Appendix 1; for information on OA programs during the year see Appendix 2.)

Outdoor Action Program Goals

The original proposal for Outdoor Action, written in 1973, clearly articulates the need for such a program on the campus and the goals under which the program has operated for the past twenty years.

This proposal is prompted by a continuing need for new and innovative ways to facilitate interaction and increase communication among diverse members of the University community. The context of an Outdoor Action program encourages a person to open himself [herself] and share with others in a setting which is supportive of failure as well as success. Such a setting may be found in a classroom, on the athletic field, or perhaps in a dormitory room. But the kind of total involvement required of participants in a challenging outdoor adventure, which demands group cooperation and individual determination, is difficult to replicate in the academic setting of the campus.


The University is a community. It is also many communities. The degree to which individuals feel a part of a community might be 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. Another indication of community is the extent to which people do things together rather than merely talk, lecture, discuss, or study.

Students frequently identify a feeling of isolation on campus today. Individuals move from dormitory room to classroom to library with little social interaction along the way.

Occasions are needed to challenge the “individualism” which students may or may not consciously pursue but which nevertheless characterizes so many students on campus today.

The Outdoor Action program will stimulate new relationships among members of the University community in a context removed from the routine and ritual of campus life. The program encourages self-discovery and personal growth as one interacts with the [outdoors] and with other people.

II.Specific Objectives

  1. To encourage personal growth and greater self-confidence through activities which make challenging demands upon the participants.
  2. To foster group interaction in a context which elicits trusts, requires compassion, provides support for each individual, and encourages mutual respect.
  3. To teach new skills and provoke new interests which will enhance the participants’ appreciation of the [outdoors].
  4. To increase awareness of the environment and stimulate ecological concern through encounter with the elements of nature in the [outdoors].
  5. To provide an occasion for recreation in an outdoor setting which requires total involvement of the person, in a manner consistent with the fundamental principles of the University.

Over the past twenty years the Outdoor Action Program has been extremely effective in helping to facilitate this type of growth. The following quotations from participants in the program demonstrate the impact of Outdoor Action.

My Outdoor Action experience has been one of the most significant aspects of my two years at Princeton. I have been fairly active as a trip participant, trip leader, and other outdoor related seminars. All of these I have grown from in knowledge, skills, and I feel I have learned more about myself and grown as a person from my Outdoor Action experience.

- OA Leader

I thought the trip was a very positive experience. OA’s philosophy and function on the Princeton campus are, I think, vital to my and other student’s psychological well-being. There is a special harmony that physical exhaustion, deep thinking, and contact with the environment seem especially able to attain. Wonderful!

- OA participant