By Joe Garvey

As Abby Rossiter was preparing to start her freshman year at Old Dominion University, she had never done anything "outdoorsy."

Then she learned about the University's First Ascent Program, an orientation program for incoming freshmen and transfer students designed to help them make the transition to college. It is centered around four-day outdoors trips that take students out of their comfort zones and create bonding opportunities.

"I had never been camping before, but I figured I'd give it a try," Rossiter said.

To stay the experience had a major impact would be an understatement.

"I would argue that I wouldn't be who I am today if I hadn't gone on this trip," she said.

Rossiter, who will graduate in May with in a degree in exercise science, was inspired to apply for a trip leader position in ODU's Outdoor Adventure Program, which conducts several trips throughout the school year. She completed an apprenticeship during the spring semester of her freshman year and has been a trip leader for the past three years.

So what was it about that first trip, to Shenandoah National Park, that she found so inspirational?

"This trip had a lot of firsts for me: my first time I was on a trip with a group of strangers, my first time camping, my first time rock climbing, my first time backpacking," Rossiter, a graduate of Smithfield High School, said in a presentation at a national conference in November. "I faced many challenges, from the physical challenge of stepping over the edge of a cliff to rappel down a rock face, to the mental challenge opening up to a group of people I had just met. At the time I had no idea how impactful this trip would be on my college life."

The First Ascent program conducts trips the summer before students enter ODU. Besides rock climbing and backpacking trips to Shenandoah National Park, there are surfing and biking excursions to Ocracoke. The trips cost $50, and each has three student trip leaders and a faculty or staff member. There are typically three trips per summer, with five to seven incoming students on each trip.

"First Ascent is a metaphor for conquering things that are huge transitions," said Eddie Hill, director of Undergraduate Research who has served as a faculty mentor on the trips. "A metaphor about doing something you haven't done before and accomplishing some of your goals, whatever they are."

Many universities have Outdoor Wilderness Programs, but ODU's program features a key difference, Hill said.

"What's unique about the First Ascent trips here at ODU is that there's always a faculty mentor there," he explained. "Not so much as a trip leader but to help them close that gap from being a high school student to coming into college, help talk about classes and things from a faculty standpoint."

Rossiter's presentation about her experiences with the First Ascent Program came at the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education Conference in Spokane, Wash.

"Through being a student trip leader, I have become more outgoing and have discovered my passion for working with people to reach their goals," she said at the conference, which had approximately 1,300 attendees. "I know that if I were to show my freshman self who I am now, I would not be able to fathom my personal evolution."

Hill, who was the faculty mentor on Rossiter's initial First Ascent trip, attested to her growth.

"I think her testimony she shared at the conference was quite telling of her," said Hill, who notes that Rossiter is now training students to take her place as a trip leader when she graduates. "When I first met her, she was so quiet and wouldn't say a word. She has blossomed and opened up and now is a very effective leader, at times which can be really stressful, whether she's taking students climbing up cliffs that are 90 feet high or taking them to backpack on the Appalachian Trail."

Rossiter, whose mother is an ODU alum, won't be leaving anytime soon. She has been accepted into the University's Doctor of Physical Therapy program, which takes three years to complete.

"Anytime anyone asks me if I like ODU, I'm like, 'Oh, my God, I love it,'" she said. "I could talk about it all day."

To learn more about ODU's Outdoor Adventure Programs, go to this link.

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