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Inside OA

Orientation Adventure trips take students across the state for four days of fun, but the behind-the-scenes preparations require months of hard work.

Campus insomniacs may still be wondering about that time last year when they spotted Susan Deitz out on Sixth Street at 4 in the morning holding aloft a tiki torch.

Don’t worry: Deitz was simply directing the first buses arriving on campus to whisk first-year students off on their four-day Orientation Adventure trips to the mountains, sea or city.

Deitz is the guiding light for the popular program that this week sent another 500 first-year students, trip leaders, faculty and staff off on adventures across the state. “My goal for the program is to have everybody go on a trip they like, have a great time and come back safe -- with new friends,” she said.

The purpose of OA is to provide new students with a few days before school starts where they can forge friendships and explore California. But pulling all this off requires months of preparations that accelerate at the start of summer, when Deitz and her crew take over Oldenborg Dining Hall as a temporary staging area crammed with sleeping bags, coolers and surfboards.

”The two expressions I use are ‘organized chaos’ and the ‘devil is in the details,’” says Deitz. “There are so many details.”

Deitz and her student crew must prepare for everything from broken-down buses to wild pigs (More on that later.) Every camp stove must be tested. Every group must have the right gear and grub. Her food coordinator recently spent a day and a half preparing 400 lbs. of trail mix.

OA organizers even have runners assigned to head to the dorms and rouse students who have overslept and would otherwise miss the trip. “I’m alive, awake, alert and enthusiastic!,” goes the chant.

OA originated about a decade ago when a group of students from the On the Loose outdoors club approached Dean of Students Ann Quinley with the idea, and she collaborated with them to make it happen.

A 20-year employee of the college, Deitz has been overseeing OA for the last seven years as part of her role as Program Director in the Student Affairs Office.

OA has greatly expanded in recent years. Last year, for the first time, the College made OA part of the Orientation program for all students and that continues this year. (Previously, anywhere from one half to two-thirds of the first-year students participated in OA.)

While many colleges offer outdoor orientation programs, what sets Pomona’s program apart is the number of trips students can choose from. There are about a dozen, ranging from community service in Los Angeles, to kayaking off the Channel Islands to backpacking in the Sierras.

Students this year set out in 36 groups, each accompanied by a male and a female leader trained in CPR and first aid. About 10 faculty and staff members are coming along this year, too.

In addition to the trip leaders, Deitz has an assistant director, Kathleen Tipler '03, and seven student coordinators who all stay behind to handle problems that arise and prepare for trip return on Friday. Deitz credits her "awesome" crew for keeping things running so smoothly.

"You have to prepare for the reality that things will come up that you have no way of anticipating," she says.

A few years back, the group heading to Pomona’s Halona Lodge near Idyllwild left without the key to the cabin. And the coordinator who had the key had already left to catch another group that had taken off without their refrigerated food. (Somebody else was sent up from campus with an extra key.) So Deitz now has an extensive pre-departure check-out process which ends with one designated coordinator giving the final “good-to-go” for departure. Departure day is quite a scene, with leaders reporting for duty at 3 a.m. to handle last-minute details. This year, several coordinators stayed up all night preparing.

Still, there are always a few glitches.

Last year, one of the rental vehicles broke down halfway up a mountain and Deitz’ crew had to arrange a complicated rendezvous, with another trip on the same road coming to shuttle folks to the trailhead. Then they had to arrange for the rental company to pick up the van and leave another car at the trailhead for the group to pick up when they came out.

Leaders on the most rigorous outdoor trips are trained to deal with everything from lightning to Yosemite’s bears. They also receive additional training in wilderness first aid. Still wondering about those wild pigs? They roam the Channel Islands, so participants on the sea kayaking trip must bring pig-proof containers to protect their food.

Food is key to a successful trip, as backpackers and kayakers and surfers burn some serious calories. Nutella, that delectable hazelnut spread with hints of cocoa, is the most popular item, says Food Coordinator Sam Rorick '07.

Another OA essential is Peeps, those sticky-sweet marshmallow treats that pop up in stores before Easter. They've become an OA tradition, and organizers buy them up during the spring to secure an adequate supply.

Even after all the trips have left, Deitz and her coordinators are busy on campus preparing for students' return. On Friday, the buses arrive late into the night, full of dirty, worn-out campers set on a hot shower. But first gear must be checked in and participants must fill out trip evaluations. Finally, around midnight, Deitz and crew will be done.

"It amazes me," says Deitz. "Every year I think 'whew. We did it again.'"