Navitat Zipline Canopy Adventure is only 80 miles from Greenville, S.C., but the treetop-hopping adventure park may as well be on the moon for Furman students once school starts. But school hadn’t started yet last month as incoming freshman Sierra Cooper ’18 of South Burlington, Vt., waited for her group’s turn to grip a pulley and plunge down a cable suspended a couple hundred feet above a gorge, so the only thing on her mind was imagining the rush of wind in her face as she got a view of Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina she’d never seen before.
“I heard from one of my friends that I had to absolutely go on one of the POP trips, because you meet so many people and it’s just a great way to start out your year,” she said from Navitat’s cozy lobby, and as she spoke she was in the process of making new ones in the form of Johanna Swab ’18 of Simpsonville, S.C., Daniyal Roshan ’18 of Braselton, Ga., Emma Jackson ’19 of Vestavia Hills, Ala., Ivy Loftus ’18 of Raynham, Mass., Susannah Lauber ’18 of Wheaton, Ill., and Jessica Norum ’18 of Redwood City, Calif.
For those counting at home, that would be seven different states representing four distinct regions of the United States being brought together by Furman’s Paladin Outdoor Program (POP). Offered to the first 85 or so incoming freshmen who sign up, it also gives soon-to-be students the chance to kayak in the Atlantic off the coast of Charleston, S.C., camp in the quiet woods of Shining Rock Wilderness, raft down the icy rushing waters of the Chattooga or Nantahala rivers or participate in a service project in downtown Greenville.
Each three-day trip is led by two faculty members and upper-class student volunteers and concludes the day before orientation official begins. That—along with the opportunity to move in before your roommate—is the real gift to those who participate, according to director of campus recreation Owen McFadden.
“That’s kind of what I like to tell my group: You’ve met some faculty members, you’ve met some upper-class students, so take advantage of that,” he said. “You have 600 freshmen who haven’t had that chance to get to know the members of the faculty in this kind of setting.”
Abigail Dahlman ’16 did, and now she pays it forward as a volunteer herself.
“Doing something like this allows you to bond in a different way than in a classroom or on campus,” she said. “It’s fun to have a shared experience . . . It makes (the freshmen) feel more comfortable on campus. I love building relationships with people, and it’s really important for me to know different grade levels at Furman. I think every class has something to bring to Furman, and I don’t judge the students by year. I just see us as a Furman student body.”
Furman students took over Navitat, arriving up the winding gravel road on a tour bus. There were actually two groups there because the 3 ½-hour zip through the treeline was part of both the Nantahala and Chattooga whitewater trips the next day, further west into the mountains. Cooper and her classmates would head to Franklin, N.C., after dinner to spend the night before splitting up, with the more adventurous tackling the rougher Chattooga while the rest enjoyed the gentler Nantahala.
Meanwhile, another bunch led by Earth and Environmental Science professors Bill Ranson and Suresh Muthukrishnan was hiking and camping in Shining Rock, North Carolina’s largest wilderness area as Philosophy professor Aaron Simmons and professor Tim Wardle of the Religion Department were guiding soon-to-be students through activities including jet skiing, parasailing and kayaking in the Atlantic Ocean.
Chemistry professors Brian Goess and Greg Springsteen headed the Nantahala group, while David Fink (Religion) and Kerstin Blomquist (Psychology) were in charge of the Chattooga riders. If students request it McFadden will attempt to pair them with professors from specific departments, so Goess may have met some future majors. But mostly POP is about fun and connecting.
“It’s a blast. One of my favorite things is watching a group of incoming freshmen who have never met sort of form a nice bond before they even officially arrive on campus,” he said. “From a sociological perspective I think it’s pretty interesting. For many of them, it’s the first time they’re really been away from home and the first time to go out and adventure with people they’ve never met before. It’s a great introduction to what college life is going to be like.”
The service trip was led by Meghan Slining of the Health Sciences Separtment and Min-Ken Liao from Biology. The students spend their time volunteering at Triune Mercy Center, which aids Greenville’s homeless population, while also getting to know the city’s vibrant downtown. McFadden said the opportunity to do something not so adrenaline-based is by design.
“(The idea) was to reach another segment of our student population,” he said, noting that many accepted applicants have been volunteering throughout high school. “Since I’ve been in athletics all my life everything I do is with some kind of sport or activity in mind, so if we were missing out on any students who may not enjoy that and would rather do some kind of service work we wanted to give them that opportunity.”
Dahlman, an education major from Milwaukee, elected to participate in the service trip before her freshman year and says the experience is one she’s carried with her.
“One of the girls on the trip is one of my best friends,” she said. “It allows you to build deeper relationships, especially coming into school as a freshman not knowing anyone and being able to branch out and meet people not on your hall.”
That’s the whole idea.
“I would encourage any student to sign up for this trip,” Goess said. “One of the great advantages is that on Friday when new students are walking in you’ll already have 40 friends and you’ll know their names and be able to sit down with them and have lunch with them, and in the hectic scheduling of the first week of school and the first week of class this is a quiet, calm time to get to know them pretty well.”
McFadden is entering his 31st year at Furman, with the Paladin Outdoor Program existing in some form or another for 15. Every trip this year was full, which culminated work he started in December. It’s a labor of love for the Citadel graduate—except for the activities themselves.
“Ironically, all of these trips that I do are things I would never have done,” he said with a smile from his office in the PAC, the sound of bouncing basketballs from the gym on the other side of the wall providing a steady backbeat to his words. “I mean, really, I’m not an outdoors person. I don’t like adventure. I don’t like heights. I don’t really like water. Being on a zip line 200 feet off the ground for somebody who’s afraid of heights—it doesn’t sit very well.”
What does sit well for him, however, is the chance to make Furman’s experience a positive one. And he believes the outdoor program helps do just that.
“It’s the students who make the program. They’re the ones who bond with one another, and through other interactions it mushrooms into a really good experience for them,” he said. “The last thing I tell my group is ‘you’ve met these other students, you’ve met these faculty members, you’ve met me. If you can’t talk to Owen McFadden, you’re going to really struggle at Furman University.’ Take this, learn from this, and know that we are just regular people and we are here to help you.”