Into the Woods: Retreats Foster Clarity and Connection

Retreats are integral components of the Park Scholarships experience. The Freshman Retreat serves to welcome new scholars into the community by affording them opportunities to get to know one another, the program itself, Park Faculty Scholars and staff, and the upperclassmen who facilitate small group discussion throughout the three-day period.

“The Freshman Retreat was an amazing way to start out my four-year journey as a Park Scholar,” said Nick Mazzoleni ’18. “I gained so much from the experience – not only did I have fun participating in the various retreat activities and making new friends, but I also learned valuable information about the Park program and started building a network that will only continue to expand during my time at NC State.”

Nine seniors served as facilitators for the Class of 2018 Freshman Retreat. They led icebreakers, answered questions, and took part in high ropes course and low ropes team-building activities alongside the freshmen. Most significantly, they helped the new Park Scholars translate lessons learned throughout the retreat into methods for managing the challenges they could expect to encounter during their first year in college.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to attend Freshman Retreat as a facilitator,” said co-head facilitator Jordan Miller ’15. “It was so fun to meet all the wonderful freshmen, and through their activities and sessions, I was reminded of just how incredible the Park program is. It was a great way to start senior year, and I feel inspired to make the most of it!”

Shortly after fall semester classes began, Miller and her classmates and Park Faculty Scholars came together for their own retreat. The Senior Retreat is a time for scholars to reconnect as a class and reflect on their past three years at NC State. Through small and large group discussions, they also consider how they will continue to cultivate their relationships with one another and with the Park Scholarships program in the years ahead.

This year, five Park alumni – Will Arrington ’08, Allison Hauser ’05, Korey Hite ’08, Joy Johnson ’07, and Isaac Owolabi ’09 – joined the Class of 2015 for their Senior Retreat. The seniors bonded and networked with these alumni during structured panel sessions as well as informally, while whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and hiking.

Emily Scotton ’15, co-chair of the Senior Retreat planning committee, said, “One of my favorite aspects of the retreat was the advice we received from these accomplished alumni about our professional and personal concerns.”

Location is a key element of Park Scholarships retreats. Holding these activities in remote locations creates a space for reflection and relationship-building without the distractions of everyday campus life. The natural beauty of the setting also contributes to the tone of the retreat. Again this year, the Freshman Retreat was held in Black Mountain, N.C., and the Senior Retreat took place in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.

Inspired by their experiences with the Freshman and Senior Retreats, this year a group of Park Scholars independently developed and executed a Park Wilderness Retreat. Erin Lineberger ’13 and Frankie Johnson ’15 pitched the idea in early spring. In an email to all current Park Scholars, they wrote, “We believe in the value of escaping our achievement-driven lives… and we have found that sometimes the ever-elusive ‘clarity’ is easiest to find when we do so.”

The retreat took the form of a beginner-friendly, five-day backpacking trip through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. In preparation for the early-August trip, Lineberger and Johnson – both natural resources majors – researched the park, spoke with rangers to determine the most scenic hiking routes, and coordinated logistics. Joining them on the retreat were Austin Bryan ’17, Lauren Frey ’17, Margaret Leak ’15, and Sarah Paluskiewicz ’16.

Despite a rainy first night on the trail and a few unpredictable complications along the way, the retreat’s participants had an enormously positive experience. By sharing photos and stories about their trip, they hope to generate enough interest among scholars and alumni to make the Park Wilderness Retreat an annual tradition.

“I grew stronger physically and mentally,” said Frey. “I loved hanging out with a small group of Park Scholars in a setting in which we could forget the trivial worries of daily life and instead enjoy each other’s company in nature. This wilderness retreat provided enough challenge that I felt accomplished at the end of every day while still allowing me to relax and reach a peaceful state of mind.”