Last summer, when members of the Class of 2022 received their housing questionnaires there was a new box to check: Are you interested in the WOLF program?
Dean of Students Terry Martinez had approached the Office of Residential Life regarding special-interest housing. The Wilderness Outdoor Leadership (WOLF) program is a special-interest housing option for first-year students interested in the outdoors and leadership. Gianni Hill ’21 is the resident advisor (RA) for the 22 residents in WOLF, located in the basement of Dunham Residence Hall. So far, Hill has led them through various activities, such as a 46 Peaks hike, a canoeing trip to an island on Blue Mountain Lake, and group walks through the glen.
“We’re providing outdoor opportunities for first-years, but doing so in a way that will further their leadership experiences, allow them to learn about their leadership styles, and to do so in a community where they all share this similar interest,” Hill said. “It gives them the space to say, ‘We all really like this one thing, how can we navigate this space together and learn from each other?’”
On that class of 2022 housing questionnaire, there was a place to indicate interest in the WOLF program, and it included some questions about outdoor experience and what they would want to bring to the community. Alex Nemeth ’22 a northern New Hampshire resident, was drawn to WOLF because of his passion for the outdoors.
“Being outdoors and being in the mountains has always been a big part of my life, especially in the past couple of years, as I’ve gotten really into hiking and backcountry skiing,” Nemeth said. “The Outing Club is one way to do it, but this is a more comprehensive environment, and I think that makes for strong bonds.”
The WOLF program leans on the Outing Club and the Outdoor Leadership office, Andrew and Sarah Jillings, for programming ideas and guidance as well as funding. They also receive guidance from Area Director for First-Year Students Jae Jaeger.
“I hope that being able to find home in the residence halls will make them more successful in other parts of their life, like academically and interpersonally, because that first year is so much about exploring and learning about Hamilton, and understanding the lay of the land so they can have a more successful following three years,” Jaeger said. “I know that Gianni’s led them in some conversations around accessibility in the outdoors, or socioeconomic status and how that affects how people can access outdoor spaces, and I’m excited for students to have those critical conversations together,” Jaeger said.
Natalie Rodriguez ’22, from Miami, wanted to partake in the program for both its leadership component and the active lifestyle it would help her lead.
“What most got my attention was ‘leadership’ because I’m always interested in acquiring more skills as a leader,” Rodriguez said. “One of my goals in college is also to be more active and engage in different activities. As a Type 1 Diabetic, exercising is part of that, so I thought this would be a cool way to do it.”
In addition to being an RA, Hill works for the Levitt Center, which is providing funding so that he can bring an initiative he leads there, “empathy dinners,” to WOLF, in which they have in-depth conversations about organized topics over dinner.
“We’ve had one so far, and the plan is to do four or five this year,” Hill said. “The first one we did was about common misconceptions people have of college, what they were excited or nervous to share about themselves.”
Sarah Jillings has helped Hill plan experiences in the outdoors and has and will be attending some of the more arduous trips with the students. The weekend after Thanksgiving Break, they had a retreat in the Glen House to have further discussions surrounding outdoor leadership.
“Ultimately, I hope students feel connected at Hamilton, that this is their place and that they have a home here,” Jillings said. “Even just the first week of class, they were going to Commons together, and it’s nice to have a couple of friends when you feel overwhelmed coming into a new space. [I hope it] also provides a base for them to explore and find other communities that really resonate, it’s a secure place for them to launch out into the world, but feel well-supported.”
Director of Residential Life Ashley Place and the rest of the office are working on expanding special-interest housing in the next few years.
“When there’s a topic that everyone shares an interest in, it makes it a little bit easier for everyone to come to a place where they are excited about building the community and establishing a really good group dynamic,” Place said. “There’s a lot of talk on campus about ‘home,’ and ‘what does home mean?’ Sometimes students struggle with feeling like they don’t have a home to go back to, so a special-interest community builds that, it builds more of a family feel, more of a place where somebody can go back and relax and feel more comfortable.”