FOOT offers rite of passage for freshmen

A FOOTie outside the FOOT house on Dwight Street (Calah Singleton/YH)

(Jinjin Sun/YH)

How to fail the leader application interview for the Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trip (FOOT): Step 1: Talk about how much you want to hang out with FOOT leaders. Step 2: Forget to talk about freshmen.

As one FOOT leader explained, the best way to ace your interview is to emphasize that it’s all about the freshmen—after all, freshmen are what put the “F” in FOOT. And it is freshman orientation—and not in the sense of compass-and-trail, but in the sense of life-at-Yale—that is FOOT’s primary goal. Each August, FOOT takes approximately 400 brand-new Yalies into the woods for four- and six-day backpacking adventures. The FOOT website promises freshmen they will have the chance to make friends, meet upperclassmen, try something new, and, with typical FOOT enthusiasm, “HAVE FUN!”

Yet for all its emphasis on pre-Yale orientation, it sometimes seems that FOOT has nothing to do with freshmen. With its active core of leaders, FOOT’s influence extends well past August. Unofficially, FOOT is a house on Dwight Street (The FOOT House), an organizer of parties, an unusually active panlist, an indicator of social success, a network of Yale’s student leaders, and a source of year-round enthusiasm.

How does a pre-orientation trip turn into a university sub-culture? No organization as large or as complex as FOOT can be summed up in a single article. We will not try. But we can, with a little help from a century-old friend, begin to see how FOOT embodies a time-honored part of the Yale experience: the ritual induction, segregation, and finally affirmation of the undergraduate student, all parts of the creation of the college community.

Published in 1911, Owen Johnson’s classic collegiate coming of age novel, Stover at Yale follows Dink Stover—football star, virile American scholar, idealized prep-school graduate—through his first three years at Yale. The novel focuses on the social hierarchies that defined Yale a century ago: the shifting patterns of friendships, connections, and extracurriculars, all geared toward the ultimate prize: selection by a Senior Society (Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, or Wolf’s Head, back in those days). Stover’s WASPy world can seem alien to students of the modern Yale. But at times it rings strangely true. The names of the clubs are the same (The Record, The Daily News), and the sense of ambition and opportunity lingers. It is our school, our home—in a different form, yes, but still, strangely, ours.

Stover arrives in a swirl of chaos—“the churning of the crowd”—soon gives way to a world of hazing and other rituals. Within his first week Stover finds himself squared up against a burly sophomore in the annual inter-class wrestling match (a tradition that, we regretfully report, has little chance of revival). From prep-schools across the Northeast, the freshmen arrive, and at Stover’s Yale, they are hazed and pressured into a united body—a freshman organism.

Today, freshman on FOOT do not wrestle their peers in darkness (and hook-ups on trips are discouraged), nor do they arrive to hazing rites enacted by eager sophomores. Instead, FOOTies walk through the Phelp’s Gate tunnel to the sound of FOOT leaders banging on pots and shouting. It’s a welcoming cacophony, a weird and wild way to welcome freshmen into the embrace of Old Campus. The result is that freshman are rendered vulnerable, their pretensions lost. As FOOT leader Jon Russell, TC ’11, points out “it is hard to present a façade when a dozen out-of-control Yalies are cheering, banging pots and pans in Phelps as you march in front of beaming parents with a backpack and clunky boots.” Any façade that remains is likely to dissolve during the activities that follow. FOOT is famous for its whacky group games—exercises that generally promote goofy behavior, the creation of loud noises, and maximum non-sexual physical contact.

And then, of course, there is the backpacking, the immersive engagement with nature and life’s basic necessities. The result, according to Russell, is an “equality of circumstance” which “allows people to drop down to what is essential to them.” United by a common activity, people reveal themselves at their most basic.

Scholars of religion often talk about rites of passage. These are the rituals that mark points of major life transition: from childhood to adulthood, singleness to marriage, laity to clergy, high school to college. Rituals of transition strip away our old identities and help us redefine our sense of self; a little part of us is reborn, and we are prepared to occupy our new position in society.

This is what FOOT does. As leader Tully McLoughlin, MC ’11, observes, FOOT gives freshmen a “moment to reflect on the powerful transition to college.” In group games and backcountry discussions, it sets a new standard for behavior, instilling the patterns and values of Yale into our incoming students. FOOT’s culture is one that values spontaneity, extroverted-ness, and a willingness to be goofy and go with the flow. Students who are overly self-conscious, who want to show off their intense athletic skills, or who feel a need to compete with their peers tend to do poorly on FOOT trips. The message is clear: Yale is an exuberant place. This is not high school. Relax.

A FOOTie outside the FOOT house on Dwight Street (Calah Singleton/YH)

When students return to campus at the end of their days in woods, they have not simply made friends. They have also learned lessons, filtered by their individual FOOT leaders, about how to be a Yalie. This is what is cool now. Be it.

FOOT was founded 27 years ago. But Yale’s rituals of transition go back far earlier, to the hazing and wrestling of Dink Stover’s Yale. Stover “submerges his individuality” in the mass of incoming Yalies as he learns the rules and behaviors that govern the University. Hazing and inter-class rituals serve only to bring the class closer. At the same time, Stover learns the traits of an ideal Yale man from an upperclassman, who explains: “Make fellows come to you. Don’t talk too much. Hold yourself in. Keep out of the crowd that is out booze-fighting—or, when you’re with them, keep your head,” among other words of wisdom. FOOT does not, of course, involve conspiratorial upperclassmen encouraging freshman not to drink. Far from it. But the basic idea is the same: Older students come to mentor and guide freshman, helping to turn them from high schoolers into Yalies.

FOOT introduces hundreds of freshman to Yale each year; its distinctive culture and values provide a frame of reference for life of the college. But FOOT, of course, is not the only organization that offers pre-orientation trips. Its peers—Cultural Connections, Orientation for International Students (OIS), and Harvest—provide their own rites of transition for incoming freshman. Yet, like FOOT, these groups can act not only as stewards of transition, but as agents of social segregation.

Everybody knows these stereotypes: All the international kids do OIS. Hipsters, future off-campus-dwellers, and pastorally-inclined urbanites embark on Harvest, with its high flannel-to-student ratio. As for FOOT, it is a realm of wealthy and upper-middle-class white kids.

Although there are numerous exceptions to these stereotypes, the lack of diversity in pre-orientation programs is a recurring concern for leaders in a number of organizations, including FOOT. Multiple FOOT leaders interviewed for this article cited the lack of diversity within the organization as a primary concern: Simply looking around the opening day of FOOT, or trolling around the pictures on the website, the overwhelming lack of racial diversity on trips is hard to miss. Quite simply, as McLoughlin observes, “FOOT is still a predominantly white group.” FOOT has taken numerous steps to rectify this issue.

According to Dennis Howe, JE ’11, a member of FOOT’s diversity committee, “Most of what we did this year was try to increase awareness about the FOOT application process in sectors of the Yale population that might not know too much about it.” Howe notes that, as part of this initiative, “Cultural Connections [CC] leaders encouraged their freshmen to apply for FOOT and FOOT leaders encouraged our freshmen to apply for CC.” In regard to economic diversity, FOOT offers generous financial aid to participants, although it remains the most expensive pre-orientation program. And, in general, FOOT seeks a “diversity of leadership styles, personality, and interests,” says Howe. Nonetheless, certain organizations—most prominently, the men’s and women’s club ultimate Frisbee teams—have a disproportionate presence within FOOT leadership.

In Stover’s day, prep-school affiliations and other connections gave most incoming students an instant social identity. Entrance into Yale did involve rituals that bonded segments of the freshman class into a unified whole. But, notably, certain characters would be missing. In Stover at Yale, Tom Regan is the work-study Midwesterner in Yale’s prep-school world. Throughout the rituals of hazing and wrestling, he is conspicuously absent. Indeed, Stover at Yale would have read very different if Stover had not graduated from Lawrenceville, an elite prep school, or if he had been Jewish or had not been wealthy. The rites of passage, the initiation into the Yale ideal—these were traditions designed for certain segments of the Yale community; rituals of segregation as well as initiation.

Today’s university is far more diverse, and, although certain schools continue to act as feeders, students come in with less defined social networks. And, with the exception of OIS, any student can do any pre-orientation program. Yet, in the very act of organizing and creating social ties, we segregate our freshmen into neat groups, each undergoing their own process of transition.

Having introduced freshman to the traits of the Yalie, FOOT must finally choose those who will guide the next batch of freshman; it must select those who will renew and redefine our vision of what the ideal Yale student looks like. In short, it must pick new leaders.

It’s a competitive process. On its website, FOOT claims that only one in three of applicants are selected. Each must fill out a paper application and undergo an interview; final choices are primarily made by the two Poobahs—the senior leaders who stand at the top of the FOOT hierarchy.

FOOT leaders often swap stories about freshmen from their trips, discussing who would make a good leader and encouraging promising freshmen to enter the leader selection process. As part of their application, prospective leaders who went on FOOT solicit recommendations from their own trip leaders. Although students who did not go on FOOT can apply to be leaders, the vast majority of applicants and leaders are former participants in the trip.

Many freshmen apply to be leaders in order to give future freshmen a wonderful experience. “These are the people who introduced them to Yale, who were among their first college friends, who (hopefully) helped them have an awesome time in the woods,” said FOOT leader Alison Grubbs, BR ’12. There is also “a bit of FOOT mystique.” Leaders develop a reputation as role models and guides. The “FOOT mystique” is the desire to become affirmed as a successful Yalie, and to become part of the highly visible FOOT culture on campus. Being named a FOOT leader is not simply to gain new responsibility. It is an affirmation of oneself as a Yale student.

When Dink Stover enters the freshman-sophomore inter-class wrestling match, he is one student among many. But Dink, virile hero that he is, represents his class in the middleweight match, and comes out the winner. It is a moment of glory. Having participated in the rituals of initiation, he has now set himself apart, and thrills in the knowledge that “he had emerged, freed himself from the thralling oblivion of the mass.” That process will continue through Dink’s Yale career as he strives to fashion himself as the ideal Yale man, culminating in his selection for Skull & Bones.

The values may have been different during Dink’s time, and lines such as “the thralling oblivion of the mass” are perhaps a bit melodramatic. But here we can begin to see how the arc of Yale social life has remained fundamentally constant over the last century: we arrive, wary and scared, carrying old ideas and identities from our lives at home. In the opening days of freshman year, we begin to learn a new set of values. We are broken down, simplified, and then build ourselves back up in the image of upperclassmen and Yale’s culture. And then, from among these, a certain group is selected, whether to Stover’s societies or, in the modern Yale, organizations like FOOT (as well as societies). A new generation of leaders comes and goes. Yale moves on.

At its root, FOOT is a chance for freshman to form communities. FOOT leaders often emphasize that, for them, the best leaders are those who are best at caring for others and fostering community. For Alison Grubbs, FOOT leaders are “good listeners” who “love being with and knowing other people.” For McLoughlin, leaders “create an environment that is safe and fun” and have “an ability to notice how members of a group are interacting with one another.” In general, FOOT strives to create a caring environment, and the example they set is a positive one.

But it is important to recognize that, as a social insititution, FOOT, like many other Yale organizations, thrives on the same exclusivity and influence that mark Dink Stover’s Yale. FOOT is more than a backpacking trip, or even a community-builder. It is one of the many ways by which we determine what it means to be a good Yale student. At times, for FOOT, this can be tied up with a reputation for segregation and almost manic enthusiasm. But, at its best, the FOOT community reminds us that, for 400 new students each year, it will be an unusually caring, thoughtful, and kind person guiding them through the wilderness to Yale.

-Michael Liuzzi and Michael Schulson

4 Responses

  1. Max H says:

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  3. the hell? says:

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