Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Blueprint for a FOP custom education program

Despite its positive impact, FOP is limited in its ability to touch and positively affect members of the Harvard community. Fundamentally, the trips are only offered to incoming first-years. More subtly, but perhaps more importantly, the trips are not universally accessible. Though FOP has, since 2016, given financial aid towards trip fees equal in percentage to the university’s financial aid, trips remain expensive, intimidating, and complicated. Too many first-years feel uncomfortable signing up for a FOP trip, can’t make the logistics work, or pass FOP by because they’re “not outdoors-y.”

Furthermore, Harvard and the outdoors are both spaces where not everyone feels a sense of belonging, and as an organization situated at the intersection of these two spaces, FOP faces challenges in including and supporting underrepresented groups such as students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and first-generation/low-income students.

As a way to broaden the impact of FOP, I explored the idea of FOP providing programming other than orientation programs for first-years. The belief in the ability of group-based adventure experiences to create positive outcomes for communities and individual participants drives FOP’s programming for first-years; it is natural to ask whether this benefit can be extended to other populations in other settings. The term custom education is used to encapsulate these extended programs, following terminology used by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). This term emphasizes that the shape and content of these programs are driven by the goals of the participants. Though the core values remain community building and self-awareness, the desired outcomes can be adjusted to fit the needs of different populations.

A FOP custom education program might run a retreat for the board of a student organization that provides a space for team-building and strategic planning. It might facilitate an affinity trip for members of a cultural or identity-based organization that allows participants to bond and share past experiences while creating new ones together. It might provide trips designed for Harvard students at other points in their Harvard journeys, such as community building trips for sophomores moving into houses or reflective trips for graduating seniors.

In order to make the FOP model work in new contexts, a FOP custom education program would have to create separate spaces and structured programming in this new context. There are obstacles to this: for example, the first years that go on FOP orientation trips are often very willing to buy in. Creating this buy in with other populations would require dedicated outreach. It could also be created by using connections that FOP leaders have within other organizations. Also, FOP custom education trips would have to look different from FOP orientation trips. Due to different settings and time frames and the different goals of the participants, custom education trips would require new curricula, new structures, and new training for leaders.

There are also logistical questions to be answered about FOP custom education. For example, where does the funding come from for these trips? Participating organizations would likely be asked to pay a fee, but to increase accessibility, FOP custom education might build up funding from donors or support from Harvard. Beyond funding, who will lead FOP custom education programs? When will they take place in the year? There are many details to be addressed. But I am left with a sense of optimism that, with a commitment to reaching out to other communities and being willing to change FOP orientation trip structures to better suit custom education, FOP can develop new programming that bring FOP-like experiences to more people and in new contexts.

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