Air conditioning, cell phone service and a bed – all the comforts of home that 24 new freshmen left behind when they participated in the Adventures in Leadership (AIL) rafting and rock climbing session this summer.
The rafting and whitewater climbing session was one of six held in July across North Carolina for members of Elon’s Class of 2026, from paddling the Outer Banks to a local adventure in the Alamance County, to the Pisgah National Forest in the North West. Caroline.
For some of the 150 participants this summer, it was a reunion in the great outdoors, a rhythm with nature that is familiar to them. Calista Quirk ’26, of Potomac Falls, Va., said it was a dream come true. “If I can do something outdoors related before I start school, I want to do it,” said Quirk, who will major in outdoor leadership education in the fall.
For others, it was a daunting task sleeping in tents, having no cell service, and spending the days in the sun hiking. But for all of them, they’ve been doing one tough thing after another in preparation for Elon’s move-in day on Friday, August 19.
Of course, there were those who were in the middle of these two camps – those who liked to do outdoor activities but hadn’t had the chance. “I don’t do enough outdoor stuff, and yet I love outdoor stuff,” said Michael Bilardello ’26.
“I think introducing people to the outdoors is such a wonderful thing because I didn’t grow up in a family that loved the outdoors,” said Juliana Schiano, 23, a student leader for AIL. “So I thought Adventures in Leadership was a great program because it exposed people to a way of getting to know the outdoors in a way that was accessible.
Schiano, along with 17 other student staff, spent three weeks all over North Carolina, from the Outer Banks on the coast to Brevard in the mountains. AIL is student-run, with an academic advisor offering support during sessions. The student coordinators, who oversee the sessions, float around and make sure everything is going well. They spent the spring semester planning and organizing these sessions, working with vendors, planning logistics and, of course, meal planning. And there are student facilitators, who work closely with participants, guide conversations about transitioning to Elon and become mentors.
“It was amazing to see the bonds forming throughout the week between facilitators and attendees,” said Mandi Jaffe ’24, a student facilitator from Parkland, Florida. “Being a resource for the animators and being there to support them was rewarding work.”
The participants in the rafting and climbing session arrived in Elon on a Sunday. They took the ropes courses on Elon Challenge to help build trust and relationships and then took part in a leadership workshop which included learning the difference between how to lead and how to be a leader and how to get involved at Elon’s on the first day.
On Monday, they circled Elon before making the three-and-a-half-hour drive to the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.
Tuesday was the main event for most participants – rafting. The group took to the water, learned the basics and set off. At the end of the day, the group was exhausted with fun, water and smiles.
From the river, they headed to downtown Brevard for the town’s weekly square-dancing event, which is incorporated into the program every year for this session.
Student leaders ran down the center of the street for the square dance. They grabbed the students’ hands and called out their names to join in the fun. After a day of rafting, it was a way to wake everyone up, to give them a second wind. and bring smiles to their faces.
The sun set on the way back to camp. While participants and facilitators were tired of the day’s activities, they still gathered in small groups to talk about the day. By the glow of headlamps attached to water bottles, the discussion took place in a circle, with each student sharing their rose, thorn and bud – their ups and downs of the day and what they expect with looking forward to tomorrow.
Going around the circle, someone said square dancing was their rose – that it was kind one fun. In Outdoor Leadership and Education, they break fun down into three types. The first type is fun in the moment and fun in the memories. Type two is not fun right now but when you look back it will be a good memory. Type three is a positive version of a bad experience – it will never be fun.
Most members of the circle said whitewater rafting or street dancing was their pink and they looked forward to canyoning the next day. The facilitators explained what the next day would be like, when they should hit the road, and what to wear and expect from canyoning.
Wednesday started early with vans loaded and ready to go at 7am. Two of the four vans headed to the Pisgah National Forest to meet their guides for the day. The students received a helmet, a harness and specific canyoning shoes. The group walked through the woods to the top of a waterfall. There the guides explained the technique and had everyone practice rappelling before embarking on the stunt.
As the golden hour approached and the coordinators began to cook for everyone, Carol Smith, education and well-being teacher and educational consultant for the session, led the participants and facilitators to a clearing for the faculty speech. She and the student leaders provided insight into what to expect when class begins, practical advice on notebooks, technology and the library.
The hosts reminisced about their first few weeks at Elon as new students and how difficult the transition can be. But they also gave advice and perspective on the upcoming move. “You’ve been doing scary stuff all week. Transitions are scary. But it’s a temporary period of a temporary time,” Schiano said.
The student nature of AIL is one of the main factors in helping participants transition to Elon in the fall. As Evan Small, Campus Recreation and Wellness Director for Experiential Learning and Outdoor Adventures and Wellness Instructor, has described, “I believe that those who are best equipped to plan for it are current students who can remember what it was like to be a newcomer. student and being new to Elon. Participants can build relationships with other incoming students and with upperclass facilitators who often continue their mentoring relationship well into the fall semester.
It was clear that attendees made these connections with each other and with student staff while asking questions about what to expect in a few weeks. They felt comfortable asking these questions, being honest about how they felt about this new chapter in their lives.
“I care about the participants and I want them to see me as a friend who has been through more than they have and I want to use that knowledge to make them more comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Sam Goldberg ’23 a host from Sandwich, Massachusetts.
It was during breaks and downtime that those relationships blossomed as they shared what their majors would be, what their goals might look like at Elon, and their hometowns.
And while everyone’s favorite activity during the week was white-water rafting, that wasn’t the answer everyone gave when asked what their favorite part of the week was.
“My favorite part was watching the band grow and coming out of my little shell a bit and being able to make friends and memories,” Quirk said.
Quirk was one of the attendees who was ready for the week away, and she pushed herself out of her comfort zone to meet new people. That’s what makes these sessions so important — they push the participants one way or another. If it’s not the adventure activities, it’s meeting new people, but overall it takes participants out of their comfort zone.
“It shows them that they have courage and are stronger than they thought, which gives them a good frame of mind for their freshman year of college,” Goldberg said.