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  • Shreya Khullar

Take Me to the River

Navigating the revamped orientation program.

By Shreya Khullar

Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner

I awoke on a summer morning in 2022 to find a message lurking in my inbox, the consequences of which I would not fully understand until months later: “The New Student Orientation Program (NSOP) is your introduction to life at Columbia as an undergraduate student! Help us learn more about you to ensure that you have a meaningful NSOP experience.” The message was accompanied by a link that loomed on the page. Like every other overeager freshman, my cursor flew toward it.

What followed was a vague and thinly veiled personality quiz that sought to sort me into one of four immersion experiences: Explore NYC, Arts and Media, the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program (COÖP, affectionately), and Community Action, Responsibility, and Engagement (CARE, a little less affectionately). I knew what they were doing. I had watched NSOP vlogs on YouTube, had researched what these “immersion experiences” would entail, and could peer through the deceptive administrative language—or so I thought. I catered my answers accordingly. Any question that implied I would be sitting in a classroom painfully enduring ice breakers or dodging Times Square Elmo in the New York heat, I immediately answered with something along the lines of, “I would feel deeply uncomfortable doing this activity.”

When the next few emails from Columbia rolled in, I learned that I got exactly what I hoped for: I would be in COÖP. I was thrilled by the idea of being in nature, immersed in a program that “uses the outdoors and adventure education to build connection”—something I knew I wouldn’t have much time for once classes began. However, despite months of preparation for college, nothing could have equipped me for what was to come.

The day after move-in, before we had any time to adjust to college life, all the students in COÖP boarded buses at 11 a.m. and headed for the Delaware River Gap. After an hour or so on the bus, the skyscrapers of the city gave way to dense forests. Suddenly I felt far away from my new home.

Two hours later, once I was thoroughly disoriented, we arrived at the campsite. Our Orientation Leaders requested we leave our phones in our dorms, not only due to potential damage in the woods and water, but because COÖP was meant to be a retreat, a place to connect with each other away from screens. The initial appeal of a phoneless adventure was fading as I was slowly becoming more uncomfortable with the fact that suddenly, just hours after I moved in, I had been plucked from the comfort of my bed, tossed among a sea of faces only identifiable by matching them to pixelated GroupMe profile pictures, and shuttled to the middle of nowhere. There was no turning back.

I recall my COÖP being a string of mishaps. On the first night, I was squished into a comically small tent, four girls flanking me on either side, all of us forced to spoon due to the utter lack of square footage. We awoke the next morning to sit through a tedious safety training. We were already behind schedule, yet the day only spiraled further when we got on the water. The river’s depth oscillated between being so shallow that we consistently got snagged on rocks and so deep that we couldn’t see the bottom. Several times, one brave soul from our boat had to hop out, shove our boat loose from the nook we had crammed ourselves into, then speedily hop back on before the current carried us away. It had been hours and no one had seen the landmark that signaled our halfway point.

Still, the worst was yet to come. After we had crossed a particularly difficult turn against the current, it started to rain: first a slow drizzle, then a complete downpour. The sunscreen we had applied hours ago melted off in wet clumps and our hair began to stick up from static. The entire rafting trip was meant to take two hours. Instead, it took around six.

Yet, I remember looking behind me on the water and thinking of how beautiful the Delaware River looked. The rain had created a light mist over the river and everything green shimmered with dew. Though we were drenched, hungry, and completely exhausted by the end of it, the beauty of the landscape and the camaraderie built between the students with me on the raft is something I will cherish.

The speedbumps we experienced (both metaphorical, in the form of logistical dilemmas, and physical, in the form of rocks) resulted from the fact that this was the first time that the immersion experience incorporated such a large swath of the freshman class. Before 2022, pre-orientation programs like COÖP were only available to a select group of people: seasoned adventurers who had to apply to get in. After Covid, NSOP underwent a large revamp and the four immersion experiences were created.

My Orientation Leader, Briani Netzahuatl, CC ’23, sat down with me to reflect on her own orientation experience. Before the program was revamped, she explained, “Some students might have felt a bit discouraged to want to apply, even though I think there were resources provided for students who were coming from backgrounds that perhaps did not have access to buy new hiking boots or gear or bags.”

The restructuring process made these experiences mandatory for all freshmen. COÖP expanded to be a more representative, chaotic mix of people from the entire freshman class, not just those who had the confidence to apply to an immersion experience. “College can be scary and a bit isolating at times and is definitely a daunting experience because you’re really on your own,” Netzahuatl told me. “To know that there were people coming in who, by the time of NSOP, already had their ‘friend group’ is crazy.”

NSOP’s expansion meant that many more students found themselves paddling on rafts, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, and taking dance classes. For me, it meant getting stuck in the rain, and, after the slow bus ride back home, taking the longest shower of my life. Aside from the obvious hurdles, COÖP did deliver on its most salient promise: an “adventure education” I will never forget. We had navigated the Delaware River, fighting off everything nature threw at us. We overcame the elements, became masters of improvisation, and developed a firm understanding of the mechanics of kicking rafts off rocks. After all that, how scary could college be?


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