In Focus: P-Wild faces issues of hazing similar to Greek groups but without same oversight

Maria LaMagna

Earlier this month, applications for Northwestern’s pre-orientation programs went live for the class of 2015. Freshmen may choose between several programs, all listed side-by-side in University literature.

In previous years, the largest and most well-attended trip has been a backpacking expedition called Project Wildcat, known colloquially as “P-Wild.”

Despite the trip’s popularity, co-chairmen McCormick junior Oliver Williams and SESP junior Emily Roskey said there’s internal change to be made before freshmen arrive this fall. Though P-Wild’s social climate and emphasis on cohesion and group bonding could be viewed as similar to that of a fraternity or sorority, Roskey said it lacks the same standard oversight.

“We are on a little bit of thin ice with the University right now,” she said.

Many elements of the trip are kept secret, which according to Williams and Roskey contributes to the experience. But several students said they were surprised at the explicit content of the University-subsidized program. With group nudity, campers lost overnight and events that seemingly violate Northwestern’s hazing policy, Roskey said she and Williams have “a lot on our plate.”

Lost and found

Two years ago, before Williams and Roskey had their current positions in the organization and while newly hired University President Morton Schapiro was just getting comfortable in his, a group of campers backpacking in Pennsylvania was separated from its two counselors in the woods for almost 24 hours.

Schapiro and other administrators eventually called for a helicopter with infrared technology capabilities to locate the group.

Weinberg sophomore Catherine Mounger, a camper in this group, said it was her first time camping.

After arriving in Pennsylvania, her group’s counselors separated from the freshmen, handing them a map and pointing them toward the trailhead. But the campers’ bus driver had dropped them approximately five miles too far from their assigned path.

“We kept going down these dead ends,” Mounger said. “We were all eventually really frustrated because we couldn’t find the trail.”

They eventually sought help from a passerby driving a flatbed truck. After hitching a ride and using his better, full-color map, the group was eventually found by park rangers and the group’s counselors. Their parents were notified the students had been lost but relocated.

Though this was a rare incident, Williams and Roskey said it, along with a separate incident in the same year of a camper being infected with E. Coli and not evacuated as soon as she should have been, marked a turning point for the organization.

“That’s kind of what triggered these new safety improvements,” Williams said. “We kind of looked at that, and the University kind of looked at that and said, ‘OK. Let’s make sure we’re doing things the right way.'”

Follow the leader

According to Williams, P-Wild has existed on campus since 1995. Beginning as a one-time wilderness trip in October for both freshmen and upperclassmen, it became a pre-orientation program the next year.

It has grown in popularity since then, soliciting more than 100 applicants, most of whom have gone on the trip, each year for about 17 counselor positions. The interview process, which takes place in the fall, consists of an application and a 15-minute interview, Williams said.

Williams said group is looking for new counselors who respect nature and the mission of the program, but added personality is also considered.

“You got to have some kind of charisma and be fun and be someone the campers will like and look up to,” Williams said.

Weinberg junior Sam Gutelle went on a P-Wild trip and applied to be a counselor but was not selected.

“I don’t think it’s objective because they are looking for like-minded people,” he said. “They want to find people who are going to have the audacity to streak across the sorority quad.”

Into the woods

The annual group of about 50 counselors leads 170 to 180 campers on the trips. The group receives approximately $2,000 each year from NU’s Associated Student Government and is publicized through NU’s website. Tuition for the program is $295 per student, with financial aid available.

Before leaving for the trip, counselors take campers’ cell phones to keep the devices safe and to avoid “distraction,” Roskey and Williams said. The groups are instructed in safety protocol and how to use equipment like camping stoves and given a portion of food they will use for the week. After this session, students drive in buses to sites in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan.

Upon arrival, counselors separate from their campers, remaining within earshot and eyeshot of them. The students are given maps, compasses and instructions to meet the counselors at a second location.

Roskey said this “solo hiking” happens for several reasons.

“I think the first thing would be if we were leading them one way, they would become dependent on us,” she said. “If we were up front and saying ‘do this, do that,’ with any other problem they may encounter, they’re going to come to us. We want them to work that out themselves. That’s what being a freshman is about: being able to decide things without your parents.”

Once students arrive at the second location, the counselors rejoin them and hike with them to “base camp,” where they reunite with the other groups in the same location. At this point, the groups play games and get to know one another.

‘What did I get myself into?’

On the University-hosted P-Wild website, the group states it is “right for anyone.” But several students said what they saw in person surprised them. Communication sophomore Rachel Geistfeld said the realities of P-Wild did not match her assumptions based on information available before the trip.

“My experience was just not at all what I expected because on the website it’s ‘go hiking in the woods,’ and it makes it seem like it’s for nature people who are really quiet,” she said.

Instead, she said, while counselors introduced themselves to the campers, one counselor pretended to give birth while other team members crawled from between her legs covered in ketchup. Several skits involved nudity.

“Saw a d*** my first day of college,” she said. “Right away you’re like, ‘What did I get myself into?'”

Several other students said they had similar experiences.

“Everyone was so comfortable,” Gutelle said of the environment as students assembled on campus to meet fellow campers and counselors for the first time. “One of the P-Wild counselors went streaking through Norris. To me that was an example of, ‘Welcome to college. Crazy things happen here.'”

Mounger witnessed nudity before arriving at base camp.

“It’s a very free atmosphere,” she said. “Once I was walking to go to the bathroom in the woods and all of a sudden everyone yells, ‘Don’t turn around!’ And there was a guy walking through the woods without any clothes on. Just a guitar.”

Geistfeld said at her base camp, the campers were also encouraged to be naked with their counselors.

“At dusk, when there’s no one else around, and we played this game called Throwdown Showdown,” she said. “The goal is to take off as much of your clothes as you can and put them on the two original counselors. Then eventually you end up getting naked and going into the lake. It was kind of a spur of the moment kind of a thing. They mentioned the group that was naked and in the lake first got carrot cake.”

In her case, the game ended with local police officers asking the group to put their clothes back on and cease playing.

Roskey and Williams said although they were unfamiliar with this particular game, they were aware of similar incidents occurring, including the pre-departure skits.

“I guess it’s an attempt to so
mehow show our personality,” Roskey said. “But there is some shock value in it … we feel like it might be things may have gone too far in parts of the way things have been before we even came into this program.”

Williams said the skits “probably do push the boundary a little bit in terms of what’s OK and what’s not.”

NU’s hazing policy forbids activities including “wearing apparel that is conspicuous and not normally in good taste,” “engaging in stunts and buffoonery,” “degrading or humiliating games and activities” and “forcing individuals to participate in activities that are not consistent with the University’s mission, rules, regulations, and policies of federal, state, or local law.”

“A line may have been crossed, but we want to make sure it isn’t crossed again,” Williams said.   

‘Adventure therapy’

Staff advisor Jason Hanson said while he does more “behind the scenes” administrative work, the group is “primarily student-led.”

“We’re constantly evaluating if that still meets the needs of the program,” he said.

Hanson said he plays no role in selecting counselors for the program, and he was unaware of specific instances of student nudity on the trips.

“I have heard stories of that in the past,” he said. “I don’t have knowledge it was proven, it was legitimate, it was a regular part of base camp or what occurs on any series of trips. I don’t have knowledge that is definitive.”

He said students’ comfort is a main concern for him in this aspect of the trip, along with ensuring that P-Wild is a safe environment for experiencing the wilderness and being welcomed to NU. He said all activities and counselor roles should align with the University’s goals.

Hanson said he believes there is value to allowing students to make the bulk of the decisions about P-Wild.

“So much of the vibe would be lost if it wasn’t student-led,” Roskey said. “It would change the entire program.”

Weinberg junior Valentina Zahran, the parent and family experience chair of the Wildcat Welcome’s Board of Directors, said she believes the pre-orientation programs, including P-Wild, should focus on making students’ first experiences at NU positive.

“We want to orient (freshmen) to Northwestern and make sure they have a place there, they have a niche,” she said. “If the orientation programs can do that for them, it makes our jobs that much easier and more fun.”

She said while she’s heard “the craziest stories” about P-Wild as compared to other programs, all the programs are designed to make students expand their comfort zones.

“I think a pre-orientation experience should be something you don’t get to do anywhere else,” she said. “I think the point is to bring people together, but the point is to do it in a way they’ve never experienced before. I think all of Northwestern’s pre-orientation programs do a good job of putting them into situations they’ve never been in before.”

Chicago-based psychologist Andrew Knight (Weinberg ‘96) said if run appropriately by qualified individuals, “adventure therapy” or “outdoor therapy” can be effective in promoting group cohesion and bonding. He said there are a number of outdoor-based programs in the Chicago area.

But he said he can’t fathom a situation in which removing clothing would be required.

Dominic Greene, director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, said University expectations for student groups should be consistent.

“Ultimately as administrators, we take hazing very seriously and we’ll investigate any situation,” he said. “But we have to know about it.”

 Safety first

Williams said moving forward, some aspects of P-Wild traditions and status quo behavior will be “either no longer continuing or seriously changed.”  

To ensure campers’ safety, counselors this year have undergone a 16-hour Wilderness First Aid training course, the co-chairmen said. In the past, they were only first aid and CPR-certified.

For the past several years, counselors have had satellite phones so they can check in with one another, the University and emergency contacts. And for the first time next year, Williams and Roskey plan to designate a site leader for each of the locations. They also modified their emergency protocol from a one-page document into a more comprehensive 12-page manual.

Roskey and Williams have explored working with the University to contract a third-party individual with extensive wilderness training, possibly a member of Outward Bound, to be present on campus and on-call for the students in case of emergencies during pre-orientation week. Previously, they directed emergency calls to the Center for Student Involvement, which often referred the counselors to their staff advisor.

“In the past the system has been super flawed,” Williams said.

The road ahead

Both P-Wild co-chairmen stressed that although there are existing problems they hope to fix, feedback they’ve gathered from students both in person and through anonymous surveys has been resoundingly positive.

Roskey said without the program she would be a “different person,” and Williams estimates if he hadn’t participated he may have transferred from NU.

“The amount of good this program does is crazy,” he said.

 Roskey said she hopes in the future, the positive aspects of the program will be highlighted.

“I think in the past we’ve thought, ‘Why do we have to prove that we’re great?'” she said. “But I think that’s really necessary right now.”

 

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Editor’s note: This article has been edited for clarity. The previous version misstated the time at which Mounger witnessed a nude camper with a guitar. She said it occurred before arriving at base camp, and the article now reflects that. The Daily regrets the error.