LITTLE STONY MAN CLIFF, Va. -- Seven students from Towson State University recently braced themselves for college life by taking a step off the side of this cliff in Shenandoah National Park. Tired, scared and a little bit gamy after a night's camping, these students were roughing it to smooth out their transition to their first year on campus.

Across the state this month, from Princess Anne to Frostburg, approximately 25,000 freshmen are flooding Maryland's colleges and universities. While all freshmen pass through some kind of introduction to campus -- with sessions on substance abuse, sexuality and personal safety -- many colleges are turning to this kind of program as a way to strip students of defenses and encourage them to think about themselves anew.

For many freshmen, moving to college is a tricky transition done at a vulnerable time. There's the challenge of leaving old friends behind and making new ones. Students who move on campus may be away from home for the first significant stretch in their lives. Some react, students and administrators say, by pushing their new-found liberty to the limit in ways that end up punishing themselves.

Some students recognize they are not fully comfortable with this challenge -- and are willing to pay a few hundred dollars apiece for a wilderness experience that will force them to confront issues of independence and trust in a way that will introduce them to new friends.

"When I'm with people I know, I'm more self-conscious," said a calm Caryn McDowell, a 17-year-old freshman from Essex, who looked over the rolling hills of oaks in the valley below. "Now, I don't even care. It might change me, and I won't be so self-conscious anymore."

At Salisbury State University, where Executive Vice President Joseph K. Gilbert started a canoeing orientation for 20 students in 1983, now 20 percent of the class -- about 140 students -- take part each fall. Although comparisons are tricky, Mr. Gilbert said participants in the outdoors orientation tend to maintain higher grades, take part in more extracurricular activities and have a higher graduation rate than the rest of the student body.

During a campus address Thursday, Salisbury State President Thomas E. Bellavance told faculty members that he hoped the university would find a way to ensure that all students could afford to take part in the trips.

Ms. McDowell and the other Towson students were among 70 who took part last week in the school's wilderness orientation. The program involves backpacking, hiking, camping and, on this day, rock climbing. It's a five-day intense jaunt in which students cannot escape from one another.

On night one, one of the biggest concerns was the snoring of Richard Price, a 23-year-old who starts school this fall after a four-year stint in the Navy.

The people in this group -- six freshmen, a junior and two student leaders -- already have spent a night kvetching about former boyfriends and girlfriends. None except the old hands have ever met before -- but within 24 hours, there were no secrets here. Instead, they cracked jokes and licked the bellies of daddy longlegs spiders for their peppermint flavors.

On day two, the focus became how to ease down an 80-foot cliff called Little Stony Man. Helmeted, harnessed and hitched to ropes that would limit any falls, the students clustered together to watch the demonstration of safety procedures. And as he prepared his backward, almost crablike descent, Mr. Price, the Navy veteran, had what a counselor called "a death grip" on the thick black rope that regulated how quickly he rappelled.

"It's just been a learning experience from the start," Mr. Price said, an opportunity to "hit the water with both oars" in college.

The 19-year-old Towson program is far from unique. In Maryland, Salisbury State University and Washington College are among the schools that have adopted wilderness orientation programs; nationally, scores of campuses use similar schemes -- including New York University, which offers a one-day Outward Bound program in Manhattan's Central Park for first-year business school students.

While colleges, including Colby College in Maine and Princeton University, have used the technique for years, participation has increased, and others like Seattle University in Washington and Lewis and Clark in Portland, Ore., have added similar programs in recent years.

As he coiled up rope that his wards later would use to guide themselves down Little Stony Man, Towson junior Scott Eney talked about his experience on the same trip two years ago and how it turned him around.

"I was in the cycle of high school with the same friends, doing the same things," Mr. Eney said. "You get kind of down on people. I was with these people for five days, and they were my best friends. It really made me see that people can be cool."

Confronting fears

It also forced him to do things he had never contemplated before -- such as confront his fear of heights. Now, Mr. Eney is president of the campus outdoors club.

That's exactly the importance of such programs, according to Jennifer Davis-Berman, an associate professor of social work at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "It's an extremely intense experience," said Dr. Davis-Berman, who has written a book with her husband on the therapeutic possibilities of wilderness experiences.

After surveying what other campuses do -- and finding at least 40 schools with extensive outdoors experiences -- she is lobbying officials at her campus to start an orientation program similar to that at Towson.

"You're going to take them out of their comfort zone," she said of students. "You develop openness, better listening, empathy for other people. There may be a little perceived risk to them -- a good program will have little actual risk. We're scared. Maybe we've never done that before -- there's that perception of putting yourself on the line."

There are other variations on the theme. In the past decade, many schools, including Loyola College and Goucher College, have initiated community service orientation projects such as building houses for low-income families or providing food for the homeless. That's another way to provide grist for shared experiences.

"We'll get them away from campus, from home, from TV, from newspapers, from boyfriends and girlfriends," Salisbury's Mr. Gilbert said. "The bonding that takes place among the group is incredible. You cannot go on a 10- or 12-day experience, ride cheek to cheek in a van, canoe on a lake or build a fire at a campsite without getting to know your peer group," he said.

Sense of security

"They finish this and get a real tight sense of security," Bob Cave, Towson's director of orientation, said softly last week as he watched the group in the Shenandoah park. "It's a good metaphor for starting college -- there will be a lot of help and then when they'll be on their own."

"We hope you're more comfortable," Mr. Cave said as the students huddled together in a circle before confronting their descent. "We also hope you're still going to be a little scared. That'll add to the experience and make you security-conscious."

Although the program was designed for freshmen and transfer students, junior Liz Fritz decided to take part, too. As she was tensing to take the first step, backward, over the precipice, she was plenty security-conscious and a touch scared, asking Mr. Cave: "What . . . am I doing here?"

After propelling her way back up Little Stony Man, she answered her own question: She had signed up for the program to alter the way she approached life at Towson State, which had been defined almost exclusively by her participation on the field hockey team. For her, too, this was a new introduction to campus.

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