Each year, UConn students have the opportunity to participate on the Connect & Challenge Wellness Retreat, a two-day excursion designed to give students the resources they need to overcome the challenges of college life.
The retreat is one of many mental health programs supported by the Parents Fund at UConn.
A trip to the Berkshires for the weekend with no electronics might not seem like a popular excursion for a bunch of college students. However, that is exactly what the Challenge and Connect Retreat, hosted by Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) and UConn Recreation (UConn Rec) provides UConn undergraduates. The retreat connects students to nature, to others, and to themselves through outdoor adventure challenges and reflective activities.
Even though Fall 2018 is my first semester at UConn, it is my fifth semester as a college student. Coming from rural New Jersey to rural Connecticut, I was excited by the opportunity to connect to nature and myself in my new home. I am in the process of creating an individualized major called Mind, Body, and Health, and I was especially eager to use this trip as a way to investigate the correlations among these aspects of myself and my peers at UConn. I wanted to make new friends and connections as a transfer student while exploring the forest, one of my favorite activities. Challenges such as whitewater rafting and less obvious ones like trying not to miss my cellphone were added bonuses and opportunities for reflection.
CMHS and UConn Rec provided students with a pre-trip meeting that outlined some of the activities planned and gave participants a chance to meet and get to know one another. We discussed aspects of the trip that we felt would be challenging and those that would be exciting and fun. Some of these aspects looked the same to us, and some looked different, but we knew there wasn’t any one person who didn’t have any challenges awaiting them.
Many participants, including myself, were there to make new friends, experience nature, and try something new. One girl was from Taiwan and had never tried a s’more before (she loves them now!). One was a rower from Massachusetts who studies engineering. Another was from Connecticut, deciding what to study and eager to get to know everyone. I saw qualities in them that I saw in myself, but I also heard about new ideas and experiences that I had never considered. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, we became close and filled practically every minute with conversation and laughter.
From gathering at the meeting place the day of departure to heading back to our dorms two days later, all of the participants, including the facilitators, supported and encouraged each other in everything we did. We had tasks, such as sharing a story of empowerment, examining and writing about what the words challenge and connect meant to us, and designing a nameplate for ourselves. We shared our stories of empowerment around a campfire, wrote in journals that accompanied us on walks to a nearby river and the cabins we stayed in, and gave our nameplates to a stranger who would become a friend by the end of the weekend.
Both nights in the Berkshires consisted of campfires, delicious food, good company, and activities such as coloring, basket making, and team-building riddles. Sleeping in a cabin brought me back to the peace, quiet, and darkness that isn’t usually found on college campuses. Waking up soon after the sun for a hike energized me in a way that waking up for school never did. Some activities, such as hiking and meeting new people, were within my comfort zone and were things I didn’t think twice about. However, one activity in particular did make me think twice—whitewater rafting. I wasn’t the only one who was getting in a river raft for the first time. Most of my friends and cabin mates were also new to the rapids. This made it easier for me to get on the raft and gave me the resolve to actually participate in the experience.
Being at the mercy of the river, I thought of how fitting a metaphor it was for life. As a participant in life, a college student, a parent, an educator, and a person, you try to prepare as much as you can for what comes your way. I did the same by wearing a wetsuit, a fleece, a helmet, a life jacket, and wielding a paddle to help push myself through the rough spots. I got in a rubber raft with my peers and two facilitators, all of us wearing the same gear and ready to safely and enjoyably make our way down the river. Our guide warned us of potential dangers and told us what to do and where to go, while we worked as a team to get from the rough sections of rapids to the calm inlets to rest. As we went from calm waters to swift and choppy rapids, it became more difficult to paddle. We could cringe and hold on to the rope for dear life, like I wanted to do, or we could envision ourselves as floating leaves on a stream, calm but also doing our best to paddle through rather than constantly worrying about falling off. School put a barrier between us in terms of “teacher” and “student,” but we all had to equally work together and paddle hard that day.
That experience of whitewater rafting was the most memorable activity that I brought back to school with me. It meant that I did something scary, loved it, and learned that control is an illusion; all you can do is breathe, do the best you can, and try to enjoy each moment. So, when I’m taking an exam, or in a crowded dining hall full of people I don’t know, I remember to breathe, relax, and float on with a positive attitude, knowing everyone is in the same boat. And if we happen to fall out, my fellow participants (now friends) and I know that CMHS and UConn Rec are there to throw us a rope and pull us back in, helping us to forge ahead.
Gifts to the Parents Fund support activities that enhance the UConn education and experience for students. Through the Parents Fund, the Division of Student Affairs works to enrich students’ experiences through supporting student health and well-being, celebrating our diverse environment, and building a brighter future for our local, national, and international communities.