Fresh Starts; Lasting Memories

Penn State orientation programs give first-year students a chance to connect with nature and participate in community service projects while making friendships that will ease the transition from home to college.

The word aurora refers to the dawn, as well as to the natural electrical phenomena of colorful streams of light in the night sky—usually near the magnetic poles. Similarly, AURORA Penn State Outdoor Orientation Programs—ORION, URSA, and VEGA —offer a powerful start to a student’s Penn State experience.

"AURORA is more than an orientation experience," says one program leader, "it is a journey that will reward you with great friends, amazing memories, and the confidence that you can do more than you ever imagined."

“If you can conquer the wilderness, what’s an 8:00 a.m. class? I’ve got a group of good friends that I know will be waiting for me. I’m just ready now.”

—Alanna Kaiser, ORION participant

Pitching tents as a team

Alanna Kaiser, one of 240 Penn State students from campuses across the state taking part in the ORION Wilderness Experience, had never been backpacking before she joined the program. She said that none of the students in the group knew each other before the trip. “The first day nobody talks to each other. At the end, we were all best friends.”

The students spent five days hiking and camping in Pennsylvania state forests, one day either canoeing or doing a high-ropes adventure, and then finished up with a cookout at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center, Penn State’s nature center and field lab and the host of all three programs.

The VEGA West Coast Wilderness program is the newest addition to the AURORA series, and offers students an incredible journey in the Olympic Wilderness.

Participants set up camp on the beach before embarking on a hike, where they learned Leave No Trace backpacking and camping ethics. In the following days, they explored waterfalls, creeks, coastal features, and felt the sand beneath their feet, all while talking about student life at Penn State. 

"VEGA took me outside of my comfort zone, allowing me to meet new people and experience things that I never could have dreamed of!"

—Jenny Eberhardt, VEGA Participant 2013

Rolling up their sleeves in Philly

In the URSA Urban Experience program, incoming first-year Penn State students work side-by-side on community service projects in Philadelphia.

This year, the group cooked a meal for the families staying with the American Cancer Society, repackaged food at Manna for individuals with life-threatening illnesses, and helped paint and weed at a local school, just to name a few activities.

A group of incoming Penn State students and participants in the URSA Urban Service Experience pose for a group photo.

URSA Urban Service Experience students

The URSA program, held in Philadelphia, provides incoming first-year students with an opportunity to participate in community service projects while making friendships that will ease the transition from home to college.

Image: Penn State

"The URSA program combines the best of community service, social, and leadership qualities that Penn State has to offer."

—a former URSA participant

Ramya Gurunathan, an URSA student, was amazed at the insight gained by her time in the program. "It will surprise you to see how much you can learn about yourself when you spend the entire week thinking about others." 

Students earn 2 college credits for taking part in the programs. Each requires participants to keep detailed journals about their experience, set specific goals for their first year of college, and write a final paper summarizing what they've learned.