For the First Time, Passage and Freshmen Orientation to be Combined

The administration hopes the now-required program will unify the freshman class and create smoother transition into college.

By Natalie Conrad | Guest Contributor
October 27, 2021
Natalie Conrad and friends during her Passage experience. Credit: Natalie Conrad.
Natalie Conrad and friends during her Passage experience. Credit: Natalie Conrad.

Passage, the formerly optional pre-orientation program for incoming freshmen, will be required for all freshmen and optional for transfers starting next year. The program itself will also be significantly changed for the 2022-23 academic year as Passage and Orientation are combined into one mandatory experience for freshmen.


A September 27 email from the Wheaton College President’s Office explained that the goal of the revised and now-required program is to create a more unified pre-college experience for all incoming students and transfers.


After a thoroughly researched evaluation, we determined that one united start for all incoming students will build stronger relationships with both peers and faculty, create a shared vision for spiritual formation, and foster better adjustment to an exciting new season of life at Wheaton,” the email read.


The Passage program dates back to 1969, when it was started at HoneyRock, the outdoor camp that now houses Wheaton’s Center for Leadership Development, in Three Lakes, WI. Initially, the program was called Vanguard and involved a men’s-only, three-week wilderness retreat focussed on character-building. It expanded to include women in 1974. In 1981, High Road became the new name. When the Northwoods track, a second program option within the retreat, was added in 2005, the program became known as Passage. 


Currently, Passage includes a two-credit pre-orientation course called Introduction to Spiritual Formation, with four tracks from which students can choose: Wilderness, Urban, Equestrian and Northwoods. In the lead up to on-campus orientation, Passage students stay for one-to-three weeks at HoneyRock, at the Wheaton College Urban Studies facility in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood or at various camps in the woods as they hike and kayak through the backcountry of Wisconsin and Minnesota.


Rachael Botting, who was the Wheaton Passage program director for seven years and is in the midst of transitioning out, emphasized that the focus for Passage remains the same despite the upcoming changes.


“It has always been about spiritual formation and providing space to transition from high school to college,” Botting said. “Despite many changes over the years, the purpose and focus are still there.


On average, about half of all incoming freshmen have chosen to attend a Passage track in recent years. The numbers have been steadily increasing since 2016, when the program added the Equestrian track. The 2018 and 2019 Passages saw record numbers of participants, with 289 freshman in 2018 and 286 in 2019.


Nate Thompson, who began directing the program in July, is trying to find ways to accomodate  all student schedules now that the program is mandatory. One of the challenges involves including student-athletes who play a fall sport and who previously could not make the trip due to pre-season conditioning. Additionally, transfer students will have a separate track which will not be required.


“I want there to be quite a few Passage options where if you’re not outdoorsy, we have something for you,” Thompson said. “If you don’t want to go downtown, there’s something for you. If you have a special schedule because you’re an athlete, there’s something for you. If you’re a transfer, we have something for you.”


HoneyRock will also be expanding some of the already-established tracks. The Urban track in Chicago, which in the past has capped at 32 students, is set to double that number next year. More trip variations are in development for the Wilderness track in addition to the current options of backpacking, canoeing, sea kayaking or climbing.


“We’re all just working hard to find ways to make it accessible for everyone and to make sure that everyone reaps the benefit of an orientation experience like Passage,” Botting said. 


In an email to the Record, HoneyRock Director Rob Ribbe expressed excitement about the expansion of the program. “We at HoneyRock are really excited to bring the proven benefits of Passage to all students and to collaborate with Steve Ivester, Student Development, the Chaplain’s Office and Christ at the Core to make this a premier orientation program in higher education,” Ribbe said.

By combining Passage and orientation and making both mandatory, the college hopes to create a smoother transition for all students. Dean of Student Engagement Steve Ivester has been working on a 10-year assessment of the program, surveying students who went to Passage and those who did not and collecting data to back this recent decision.


“The data clearly shows that students who have done Passage have a deeper affinity to the college more quickly, are more comfortable with faculty, do better in the classroom, and are more involved on campus,” Ivester said.


With the new changes to the schedule, students will have their first day of orientation the day before their Passage departure, and the various tracks will no longer converge at HoneyRock but rather back at Wheaton for on-campus orientation.


“It’s now becoming a bookend to Passage, as opposed to an ending to Passage,” Ivester said. “Typically, Passage means you arrive on campus and you go to your site, then you come back to campus and participate in orientation. Now, when you arrive on campus, you’re going to get this welcome on campus that’s like what you see during orientation.”


Freshman applied health science major Rutledge Feltel attended the Northwoods Passage track this past August. A member of the baseball team, he said that Passage was fundamental to his transition to Wheaton from his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.


“It set the tone for a successful start to Wheaton College as a student-athlete,” Feltel said. “I believe it would have been difficult to make friends outside of my specific sport, and that has held true. Because of Passage, I was able to form relationships outside of the baseball team.”


Still, Feltel feels the shift to make Passage mandatory next year will make the transition to college harder, especially for fall student-athletes. “I think it’s going to be incredibly difficult to add that on to an already strenuous workload, but equally rewarding,” Feltel said.


Jae Alderson, a freshman communication major, enjoyed her experience on the Urban track in August but is also skeptical about how students will react. “I know there are some people who will go into it probably begrudgingly because they don’t want to, and that might hinder some growth while they’re there because it’s not a choice,” Alderson said.


Regardless of the potential challenges, Wheaton and HoneyRock staff stand by their decision to make the program mandatory for all freshmen.


“The sense of belonging, the sense of community, and the opportunity for developing friendships and a connection to Wheaton are going to be awesome,” Ivester said. “It’s just going to build the formation of our students in a really powerful way.”

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