Unique Ohio Wesleyan Program Helps First-Year Students Build Strong Foundations
Put simply, Will Hayes says, “We hope that Fresh X would be the first step for freshmen to succeed in college and truly find a home here at OWU.”
Hayes, an assistant chaplain at Ohio Wesleyan University, coordinates the Fresh X program, a three-day pre-orientation program that lets first-year students spend time off campus getting to know each other and current students. This year, participating freshmen chose from among a wilderness trek, Habitat for Humanity trek, and food justice trek.
“Fresh X offers freshmen a foundational community right when they get to college. Friendships form over these three days that last for the duration of students’ time at OWU,” says Hayes, who oversees the 25-year-old program with the support of the Chaplain’s and Student Involvement offices.
Student participants also learn how to push past their comfort zones and boldly try new things and meet new people. “The hope is that Fresh X informs the rest of their college years by establishing patterns of rest and reflection, encouraging deep and lasting relationships, and prompting students to step into places of influence and leadership on campus,” Hayes says.
Each trek is led by student leaders – upperclassmen who undergo an application and interview process for the chance to invest in the lives of these freshmen. Everyone agrees the program is transformational.
Cay Johnson ’18 says: “Fresh X helps form relationships and helps overcome fears about college all while having the time of your life. This is a huge confidence booster that gets you ready for your first day of college.”
Justin Seffernick ’16 adds: “Fresh X brings new people together and makes them feel wanted and comfortable. It is one of the most unique experiences you can have at OWU.”
Emma Drongowski ’16, vice president of OWU’s student government, says: “While orientation gets you logistically and practically prepared for college, Fresh X gets students emotionally and spiritually ready. It is a way to face the fears you have about college head on and come out prepared and excited to be an OWU student.”
Perhaps the most important element of Fresh X is the time freshmen have to pause and reflect on this monumental transition in their lives. Student leaders guide groups of seven to 10 freshmen through a series of discussion questions and reflections that ask the new college students who they truly are, who they hope to grow into during college, what their purpose will be for the next four years, and how they will face and overcome challenges.
“This is a huge change in their lives,” Hayes says, “and the opportunity to be still and reflect before jumping into the craze of college is vitally important.”
This year for the first time, participating freshmen were invited to a Fresh X Follow-Up Retreat, enabling them to come back together after one month to pause, reflect, and reorient themselves if need be. A group of five freshmen and four student leaders traveled with Hayes to Cook Forest State Park in Pennsylvania for the new event.
Through camping, rock-climbing, and hiking, the group had ample time to reflect, as well as develop new and deeper friendships. “The goal of the follow-up retreat was just to check in with these freshmen,” Hayes explains, “and see if there are any ways their student leaders can be of more service to them.”
The follow-up retreat also was designed to “extend into the semester the many benefits of Fresh X,” Hayes says. “It’s valuable to ask those same questions of identity and purpose one month into college when they’ve actually had a taste of college.”
During a hike through the Forest Cathedral, an old-growth area within the park, freshmen and leaders discussed questions that continued the reflection curriculum of the Fresh X experience.
Of the experience, Jase Jacobson ’19 says: “Most of college is learning to take care of yourself, and taking care of yourself includes finding ways in which you can relax. For me, taking a short break from technology and social groups is a good way for me to re-center myself, and I appreciate that Fresh X provided me with that opportunity.”
Milany Duarte ’19 adds: “It was nice to get away from the chaos for a short while. Since I arrived in Ohio, I’m always doing something, always going somewhere with someone. I’m so busy meeting new people that I never have time to enjoy myself. It was nice to wander where the Wi-Fi was weak with great people. A weekend spent in the mountains made life seem much simpler.”
Haley Talbot-Wendlandt ’18 participated as a student leader for the weekend. “I gained a sense of calm that I hadn’t yet experienced this year. The activities, from the intense focus of rock-climbing to the serenity of being in the woods among a lot of very tall trees, helped me stop worrying about the work that I would have to face during the semester. My favorite part was everyone’s amazingly positive attitudes. Even when it was dark, cold, and raining, we were laughing and enjoying ourselves.”
The Fresh X program also introduces to freshmen the idea of experiential learning, which makes the OWU college experience so unique. “Whether it’s through a Theory-to-Practice Grant, a wilderness trek, a Travel-Learning Course, or a spring break mission trip, students will learn in ways they’ve never before experienced,” Hayes says. There is so much more to be learned outside the classroom, and Fresh X begins that process early on.”
Author Billie Paulus ’16 is a former Fresh X participant and three-year student leader. Of the experience, she says: “Fresh X is a time to bold and to be vulnerable. It is a time to choose the life you want to live the next four years and grow in trusting yourself and reaching out to other people. It is the first experience at college to embrace.”