How Camping with Strangers Changed My Life: One Senior’s Guide to Risk

Elle Lucas
Class of: 

Two weeks before I arrived as a first-year at St. Lawrence, I received an unexpected phone call asking if I would like to participate in a Pre-orientation Trip. It was unexpected because I hadn’t requested to go on one of these adventurous experiences, for I had, but because I had already been told there wasn’t room for me. I had been rejected. So naturally, I gave the caller an exuberant yes, began to pack my things earlier than planned, and arrived at campus a mere two weeks later to set forth on my SLU career. Less than a night later I was sleeping next to a girl whose name hadn’t stuck yet, and that is where this guide to taking chances begins. Listen up.

STEP ONE: Sign a waiver that says, “This activity could literally kill you.”

Other than my acceptance letter, I think the form to participate on the pre-orientation rock climbing trip was the first official document I signed in college. It basically said, “Climbing is super fun, but it can also be super deadly.” I had no hesitation in scrawling my name on this sheet and going into the wilderness with two student leaders whose experience had yet to be demonstrated to me. And still, I hopped in the van with seven other kids and tried outdoor rock climbing for the first time ever. I fell in love.

The climbing wall on campus became my new hang-out spot during my first year and has also been the foundation of several friendships and countless expeditions. I became hooked on the Outdoor Program and for the next three years I led my own pre-trips, and even became an employee of the wall to embrace my newfound passion.

STEP TWO: Get in costume and talk about yourself to a bunch of strangers (who are also in costume).

Thanks to one of my first-year Pre Trip leaders, I applied to live in Commons College, the theme house with a living and learning community. To become a member of this respectable residence, I put on my best flannel shirt and jorts and shakily answered questions like, “How will you actively contribute to the house environment?” but also, “Would you rather have arms for legs or legs for arms?” to a panel of peers dressed like decked-out dinosaurs/enthusiastic cheerleaders/stoic monks. I must have said something right or convinced them with my stellar dance moves, because my sophomore year I lived in Commons with those same characters whose passion for both costumes and poetry (our class topic during the fall semester) was abundantly clear to me.

The theme house community quickly (and thankfully) became an inescapable aspect of my life that introduced me to dinners at the Greenhouse and craft hours at the Women’s Resource Center. Diverse niches of campus began to weave their stories into mine, and SLU continued to grow in my heart as the best place EVER.

STEP THREE: Travel to a land where you don’t know the word for “peanut butter.”

What happens when you leave campus, board a plane, arrive at a Spanish airport and realize you don’t actually know where you’re going next? You just keep going. As I got in the taxi that would take me to the start of the next five months in Málaga, I rifled through papers to find something that looked like an address. I think the driver took pity on my nervous Spanish and eventually got me to where I needed to be. As it turns out, though, I couldn’t figure out how to open the door to my residence hall and just had to wait casually (anxiously) on the curb until someone else exited the building and I could sneak my way in.

I was alone in all of this because during my junior year I studied abroad through St. Lawrence’s partner program, ISEP. The friends I made were not SLU friends in Spain, but rather students from Argentina, China, France, Italy, and Turkey. It was paralyzing some days to feel mute and unable to express myself in a foreign language or to operate in a foreign culture (siesta was so hard sometimes...), but my greatest rewards came when I forced my tired tongue to keep speaking and my tired brain to keep thinking and learning each and every day. Not a minute passed by where I didn’t discover something new about my surroundings or myself. And this experience – uninhibited with American influence – was terrifying, gratifying, and limitless with possibility.

STEP FOUR: Answer the phone when it’s an unknown number.

They say that in your senior year of college, you experience a lot of “last first days.” Okay, fine, they say that because it’s true. You also just experience a lot of lasts: days of class, late-night walks from the library, club meetings, sports games. But here I will challenge all of this by saying that there are also many firsts of senior year. For me, they included recognizing I was a feminist, winning first place in a statewide competition for The Hill News, and giving real, deep thought as to what my next step would be after this would all be over.

Much like the late August day when I answered the phone and agreed to try rock climbing, nearly four years earlier on a late April day I received a phone call from a number in Idaho, and I answered. The friendly voice on the other end of the line asked me if I would accept the offer to be an assistant leader for outdoor trips, live in a residence hall with students, and teach Spanish. (Sound familiar?) Naturally, I gave my ever-exuberant yes and thought about which bags I would pack when I traveled west on my newest adventure.