HALSEY — What’s the best way to connect with a group of strangers?

A two-hour drive to stay in a national forest with spotty cell reception and no televisions is a good start.

Six incoming freshmen from the University of Nebraska at Kearney got to know each other a whole lot better last week through the First Adventure summer camp, a UNK program in its third year.

Sponsored by the First Year Program and Campus Recreation and Outdoor Adventures, the camp gives new students a chance to learn more about campus and their fellow Lopers before classes start next month.

“College is so intimidating because it’s everything new at once — all new classes, all new people,” said Isabelle Short, an elementary education major from Omaha.

The Millard West graduate signed up for the four-day summer camp to get outside her comfort zone and meet other students in a similar situation.

It didn’t take long for that to happen.

On Wednesday, the UNK freshmen were at the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey, where they tackled ropes courses, zoomed down a zipline and enjoyed a leisurely float along the Middle Loup River. They looked more like a bunch of longtime friends on summer vacation than a group of teenagers who met just two days prior.

That sense of camaraderie is exactly what First Year Program assistant director Brette Ensz wanted to see.

“When we did the high ropes course and zipline, there were people who were hesitant to try these things, but the other students rallied around them and made sure they felt comfortable. That’s who we want to participate in these camps and that’s who we want them to be in college,” said Ensz, who organized the camp along with UNK senior Haley Pierce of West Point, student coordinator for the First Year Program.

Connor Gosnell, a senior social work major, knows firsthand how important this type of bonding experience can be.

The Maxwell native said the support and encouragement he received through UNK’s Thompson Scholars Learning Community made him a more confident person and better student.

“Now I have an opportunity to give back to other students and show them it’s not as scary as it looks. This is something you can have a lot of fun with and really push yourself,” said Gosnell, who’s assisted with the past two First Adventure camps as a student worker for Campus Recreation.

“A lot of these students will have the same opportunity to help others,” he added. “They can be leaders.”

The First Adventure camp started Monday evening on the UNK campus, where students explored different buildings during a scavenger hunt, scaled the climbing wall inside the Wellness Center and stayed in a residence hall. They were also introduced to a number of campus resources, including the Learning Commons, Student Health and Counseling and Office of Student Engagement, and they completed an assessment to identify their leadership skills and how to best utilize these strengths during college.

“They really get a full experience on campus,” Gosnell said. “It gives you so much more confidence when you’re going into your first week here. It gives you that extra step to be a more confident student.”

Tuesday’s drive to the Nebraska State 4-H Camp tucked inside the national forest was all about developing relationships and having fun.

“The car ride itself was just a blast,” said Ensz, referencing the joke-telling, carpool karaoke and a pit stop at the Sandhills Heritage Museum in Dunning, population 103.

For Amanda Brandt, an incoming UNK freshman from Spanaway, Washington, the experience was everything she hoped it would be.

The social work major is familiar with Kearney, where her grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins live, but she didn’t know many people attending the university she fell in love with on her first campus visit.

“This was a great opportunity to meet other people my age and develop that connection,” Brandt said. “I think I created a really great bond with them.”

Short agrees. She’s already looking forward to move-in day, when she’ll see some recognizable faces back on campus.

“I definitely think they’ll be people I can rely on throughout my freshman year and longer,” Short said.

That’s why a couple of days in a central Nebraska forest is the best way to start your college career.

“They might not remember anything we told them about campus resources — although I hope they do — but they will remember the relationships they created,” Ensz said. “And that’s what’s going to keep them at UNK — the people.”

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