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AURORA Bonds Students Through Outdoor Exploration & Discovery

Think back to your transition from high school to Penn State. It didn’t feel smooth and effortless, did it? It was filled with brand new environments, people, places, and everything in between. You’re here now, but was it easy?

With the help of Penn State’s outdoor orientation program, AURORA, students are introduced to a group of individuals in either a five-day wilderness exploration or a community service-filled trip. Most importantly, students can find out who they want to be during their time on campus.

AURORA helps students from all walks of life transition to a new chapter at Penn State. Whether you’re an incoming freshman, a student who decided to take a gap year, or are transferring from another school, AURORA is an opportunity to ease into a new lifestyle.

“When you have a week where you’re focusing on who you want to be, how you want to show up in college different than how you showed up in high school, and you don’t have the distractions of your phone or social media, you really get to dig in,” AURORA director Jen Emigh said.

Courtesy of AURORA

Emigh was an AURORA leader during her undergraduate years at Penn State. After graduate school, she came back to her roots. This is now her 13th summer serving as the program’s director.

“If we focus on transitions in our lives, they can teach us so much… There’s no way you’re the same person five days later than when you started these trips,” Emigh said.

This summer was the 26th summer AURORA has been operating for students and leaders. To stay successful and thriving after the effects of the pandemic was a big step for Penn State’s Outreach programs.

AURORA is the overarching name of the program, but there are different activity segments under AURORA named after constellations or stars.

ORION is the longest segment to have been around and is the backpacking program in Central Pennsylvania. The forests that surround Penn State are the locations students backpack, camp, and hike through, rain or shine, for five days. Students start and end their experience on Penn State’s campus. They also have no access to technology when on their trip.

With around 10 students and two to three leaders, the backpacking adventure begins.

“Not only are students learning camp crafts, like how to set up a tent, light a stove, or hang their food at night so critters don’t get to it, but they’re also working on being a positive member in their group and paying it forward,” Emigh said.

The “sweet spot” of the ORION backpacking trip is their “Nalgene Fires,” which then become their community meetings. They take their Nalgene water bottles and wrap their headlamps around them. Everyone puts them in a pile on the ground with the lamps turned on, creating a glowing campfire.

Courtesy of AURORA

These evening meetings start pretty light and surface-level. Throughout the trip, they become more personal and vulnerable when more trust is developed.

RIGEL was formed based off of ORION due to the lack of orientation for transfer students at the time. When Emigh took over as director, she asked herself if there were ways to make AURORA available for all students. Students can be transitioning from Commonwealth Campuses or other universities entirely. RIGEL is tailored for individuals who fit a different bracket than the common high school-to-college student pipeline.

The next program is URSA, which started in 2000. It’s a community service-based program because hiking in the woods is not for everyone. About 70-80% of the students that do AURORA have never been backpacking, and many don’t prefer backpacking, so this is a new opportunity for those who still want an active transition to Penn State.

This year, URSA camped at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and traveled to different service sites. These students have the same bonding activities as those in ORION or RIGEL, just in a different setting.

The last program available is a virtual experience named SIRIUS. It was designed during the pandemic for students in remote locations. The students will do outdoor activities on their own during the day. In the evenings, they hop on a Zoom call with their groups and leaders, which creates a new progression for themselves.

“[Students learned] how being in nature and getting outside actually helps decrease their stress because they need to do it every day to fulfill the class assignments,” Emigh said. “This program, they have to do something outside every day… We walk them through a progression with that.”

Something notable about each AURORA program is they’re worth three GHW credits through Penn State. Because it’s technically a class, there are assignments to complete and opportunities to go to classes in September and October to reunite with your summer crew, discuss what campus life is like, and what you’re experiencing at University Park.

“We keep honoring this transition and helping them work through it. We don’t just say, ‘After this five-day hiking trip, see you later!’ We say, ‘OK, so, you’re three weeks into class, let’s talk about it!'” Emigh said.

To become a leader in AURORA, you don’t have to be a student in the class. In the winter, application and interviews through AURORA will take place, which will then lead to provided training in the summer, once hired.

Leaders go through a two-week training process of wilderness medicine training, introduction to outdoor hard skills, and more. For example, when leading students through the outdoor program, they will help pitch tents and live in nature.

Courtesy of AURORA

“AURORA has impacted my love for nature and my compassion for people,” fall leader Sophie Miller shared. “Through the program, I’ve realized how important the outdoors is to all relationships. The aftermath of each trip is just amazing because you have a new group of buddies by the end of it.”

Many students walk away from their week-long programs feeling understood, supported, and seen. When Emigh receives feedback from parents and students, it’s prevalent that “the sense of belonging” and experiential learning are some of its main goals.

“When you spend time in these small groups together, usually in the woods, what happens is this bond forms,” Emigh said. “I do tell them on the first day when they’re nervous, ‘Look to your right and to your left because these people sitting next to you are going to be your new best friends.'”

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About the Author

Larkin Richards

Larkin is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. The only words that leave her mouth are "yinz" and "dippy eggs." Luckily, her writing has much more substance than that. As a Steelers and Pirates fan, sports can become a hot debate. Share your thoughts on dogs (specifically Boston Terriers) with her at: [email protected]

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