A few miles into a day-long hike, Mike Albares, ’10, noticed a strange sensation in his right foot. It was a minor irritation on a growing list of inconveniences related to carrying a 30-pound pack up Bald Mountain in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
It was early in the fall semester, and Albares was on his first major outing with RC Xtreme, a group of brave-hearted freshmen seeking outdoor adventure and new friends with similar interests.
RC Xtreme is a voluntary program available to Richmond College freshmen. One part of the program is a series of weekend adventures designed to forge friendships among participants. The second part is a year-long commitment to live together on the RC Xtreme hall of Gray Court.
On campus, Albares could throw a rock from Gray Court to the dining hall, but on Bald Mountain, the dining hall was 100 miles away, and hunger pangs constantly reminded him that the group had not brought enough food. Fatigue was another consideration that kept his mind off the nagging pain in his foot.
“It’s just a small rock in my boot,” he thought.
The wind rose a bit and Albares stopped to rest. He was tempted to remove the pebble from his boot, but he decided against it. He did not want to be the tenderfoot who made a big deal out of a small stone. He thought back to the book that Xtremers had read during the summer, Into the Wild. He remembered reading that you have to expect the unexpected in the wilderness, and when the unexpected happens, you just deal with it.
Albares started hiking again, but the pain—and the stone itself—seemed to be growing with every step. He was limping, but he was determined to keep up with the group—another mile, another half mile. Finally, the pain overpowered his ego.
“Guys!” he said, “I hate to slow you down, but I have to stop a minute and take this rock out of my boot.”
It was worse than he had expected.
Albares and the other RC Xtremers are taking advantage of a theme-housing program called Living and Learning. Participants share common interests, residence halls and an expectation that their college educations will extend far beyond the classroom.
From the left, Onur Unver, ’10, Gabe Gigliotti, ’10, Mike Albares, ’10, Kris Gerig, ’09, James McCormick, ’10, and RC Xtreme advisor Shelley Justice prepare for white-water adventure on the New River.
RC Xtreme is one of two Living and Learning programs that incorporate outdoor adventures. Others focus on leadership, global awareness, civic engagement and the arts.
“Theme housing is far more than an orientation exercise,” says Patrick Benner, assistant dean of Richmond College. “Theme housing is a living-and-learning experience, and each program was formed from student initiatives. A student comes along and says, ‘I have this interest, and it’s a great thing to do. How can I find others who might enjoy it?’ Thanks to the students, we’re always getting lots of new ideas.”
The University’s original theme-housing program was Spinning UR Web, which was conceived 21 years ago as an extended orientation.
Much like RC Xtremers, “Webbers” participate in weekend activities to get to know one another. Socializing is a big part of the program, which includes intramural sports, bowling, laser tag, game nights and a ropes course. They also meet and mingle with University administrators and student leaders.
The Webber program appeals to students who have been leaders in high school and expect to be deeply involved in campus organizations and activities. Braxton Bragg, ’06, progressed from his Webber beginnings through several important roles on campus, including president of the Richmond College Student Government Association during his senior year. Bragg attributes much of his success on campus to Spinning UR Web.
“Two of my immediate three predecessors in the RCSGA presidency were Webbers, and many of the candidates they ran against were as well,” Bragg says. “Webbers are always encouraged to stretch themselves, from the day they arrive on campus.”
In recent years, the various theme-housing programs have strengthened their academic components.
A prime example is Westhampton College’s Ready for Moore program, which features discussions and activities designed to connect academics to daily life in Moore Hall, a dorm for first-year women. This year, participants enrolled in a special session of Foundations of Leadership, a popular class in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Dr. Tom Shields, who teaches the course, confirms that the Ready for Moore group really was ready for more.
“They bonded much more quickly as a class, and I think it was because they lived together,” Shields says. “The class went on for them long after the hour was over. They would come in and say, ‘We were talking about this last night, and …’ Living on a hall together was tremendous for them. It got to the heart of what Living and Learning is all about.”
Since the class was well-stocked with future leaders—Webbers took it, too—the students were eager to study public leadership.
“We talked about what it means to be impoverished, for instance, and then we had the executive director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center talk about poverty in Richmond,” Shields says. “Students interviewed the superintendent of schools about education, and the police chief about crime. They looked at … homelessness and at city council elections.”
Corrie Mixon, ’08, (seated), Joyce Bennett, ’07, (left) and Jill Eisenberg, ’09, turn their dorm into a forum.
Even after the class ended, Shields continued to receive e-mail from participants. One contacted him during spring break to say that the report her group did on the Healing Place, a local non-profit agency, was being featured on the agency’s Web site.
“These students have clearly gotten involved beyond the normal classroom experience,” Shields says. “When they contact you over spring break, you can be sure they’ve grasped the fact that their school resides in a Richmond community far larger than this campus.”
Civic Engagement House is another Living and Learning program that promotes interaction with the metropolitan Richmond community. Sophomores, juniors and seniors choose from activities that include service projects, tours of the city, panel discussions and making documentaries about urban issues.
Joyce Bennett, ’07, and Jill Eisenberg, ’09, call the co-ed program outstanding, perhaps even life-changing. Eisenberg says it was “one of my best experiences at UR,” and Bennett says she “absolutely loved it.”
Much of their enthusiasm stems from a course taken by all Civic Engagement House participants, Urban Crisis in Modern America.
“Not only did we learn in this class about the history of homelessness, poverty, race and class issues, we explored ways that we could do something about the problems,” Bennett recalls. “We split into groups and produced documentaries about the issues that interested us—issues such as gangs and youth violence, Latino health and affordable housing. Then we made those documentaries available to non-profits and other agencies in the area. … We also produced printed materials and publications that we handed out on campus.”
The class toured the city and interviewed people working in the community. They spent a Saturday at Boaz and Ruth, a local non-profit agency working to revitalize Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood. They also started a blog about community issues as a way of extending their discussions beyond the classroom and residence hall.
“The Civic Engagement House allows us to be engaged in the community in a thoughtful manner that has actual repercussions,” Bennett says. “I think the house does a better job at that than any other organization that I have seen so far.”
Bennett also has made lasting friendships with people she might not have met otherwise. “The best part is the nightly discussions in the hallway, usually at 11 p.m. or later,” she says. “We talk about child care in Richmond, the lack of potable water in Central America, repression in China, immigrants in Richmond. You name it, we talk about it.”
Eisenberg singles out Dr. Amy Howard, who teaches the urban crisis course, for special praise. “I am very appreciative [of her] taking the chance on this endeavor because it has been eye-opening,” Eisenberg says.
Bennett adds that Howard has been completely devoted to the house. “Her motivation and excitement about its potential is catching. Having a professor of her caliber to discuss these issues with is … a unique aspect of the house. Who else can say that they have talked about public housing with their professor over bagels and coffee on a Saturday morning?”
Another Living and Learning program, Explore UR World, invites domestic and international students to live together in Dennis Hall during their first year of Richmond College.
The program includes speakers from around the globe, international dinners, foreign films and a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit an embassy. Explore UR World also gives students a chance to jump-start their study abroad planning.
“This program helps domestic students get acquainted with other people and other cultures, and it helps international students acclimate to American culture,” Benner says.
Global House is similar to Explore UR World, but the living arrangements are co-ed and include sophomores, juniors and seniors who are interested in global issues and cultural diversity. Residents promote cross-cultural understanding and respect while integrating their academic interests with their residential experience. Global House prepares students for the real world through continuous exposure to diverse people, concepts and ideas.
Another co-ed program is Arts Community, which places sophomores, juniors and seniors in the same residence hall with other visual and performing arts students. The new program dovetails with arts-related courses and events at the Modlin Center. Residents also plan activities that highlight their individual disciplines and artistic interests. RC ArtStart, a similar program for Richmond College freshmen, began this year and will add a residential component next year.
Finally there is Outdoor House, which is similar to RC Xtreme, but for sophomores, juniors and seniors of both sexes. Outdoor House also has a larger academic component than RC Xtreme. Residents of Outdoor House take a four-credit class that fulfills the literary studies curriculum requirement. It focuses on personal and intellectual interaction with nature, combining fiction and nonfiction readings with excursions into Virginia’s mountains and forests.
Outdoor House residents participated in the camping portion of RC Xtreme’s Bald Mountain trip, but they opted out of the 11-mile hike.
Albares found no stone when he finally removed his boot, but his foot was bleeding, and the blood had soaked through his sock and into the boot. A big nail was sticking up through the sole. He had been walking for miles with a nail jabbing his foot, and each step was pushing it deeper into his flesh.
Albares’ punctured foot healed quickly, but the lessons he learned from the nail in his boot will serve him well. He discovered that ignoring a problem is not the same as dealing with it, and he learned not to underestimate his fellow Xtremers.
They did not call him a tenderfoot. In fact, they marveled over the size of the nail piercing his foot, and they appreciated the way he had endured the pain because he did not want to slow them down.
Back on campus, Albares checked his tetanus shot records and adjusted to life on the RC Xtreme hall of Gray Court. His freshman feelings of apprehension are long gone, and the Xtremers have moved on to other adventures, including a white-water rafting trip in West Virginia.
The new friends soon will become old friends, and they probably will tell the nail story at class reunions years from now. And each time they tell the story, the nail will get bigger, the bleeding will become more profuse, and the bond they share will grow ever stronger.
Barbara Fitzgerald is a freelance writer based in Richmond.
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