20 Years of Camping
For many University of Oklahoma students since 1996, their college careers have begun before the first day of class. They’ve begun before the heat of August, in the equally warm months of June and July.
Camp Crimson, OU’s wildly successful freshman orientation program, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer. What has developed into an opportunity for incoming freshmen to come to campus to find their Sooner identity, has also grown from one session that first summer to its current five. About half of OU’s freshman class, roughly 2,500 students, attend camp.
“The growth has been great,” according to Kristen Partridge, OU’s associate vice president for Student Affairs and associate dean of students.
Partridge has been a part of Camp Crimson since it’s early years. She came to the OU campus as a freshman in 1995, one year before the camp’s inception. In 1998, she experienced her first camp as a small group leader. Since that time, she says, the driving focus of the experience has remained constant.
“The central goal for us is to help students understand they belong here, they can become the best version of themselves,” Partridge explains. “Camp Crimson is really designed to do that.”
Partridge served as a camp leader under Becky Barker, OU’s current director of leadership and volunteerism. She credits Barker with laying the foundation of many of the camp’s and allowing Partridge to invest herself in the program.
“I remember as a student leader feeling a lot of ownership in camp because of that,” Partridge recalls. Among the ideas hatched under Barker in those early years were a camp scavenger hunt and a concept that still plays an integral role in camp.
Small group leaders, who number about 375 and lead groups of about 25 students, wear safety pins with their name tags, a sign of cohesion. Group leaders would then be given beads to put on the pins as signs of extraordinary effort. The practice evolved into a touching moment near the end of camp. Small group leaders now present their pins to a camper they feel has contributed to the unity, excitement and experience of the entire group.
“They have their safety pin moments and people remember those moments,” Partridge says. “They’ll stand up at camps years later and say, ‘I remember when you gave me your safety pin and it made me feel like I belong here.”
Student remember much of what goes on at camps and Partridge believes that’s a direct result of the guiding principle under which volunteers and organizers operate.
“This idea that being a part of camp is really about serving these incoming students started back in the early days,” she says.
The focus on serving students is expressed in some outward signs among camp leaders. Small group leaders all mark their hands with a 2 during camp, reminding them they are second and students are first. Other camp organizers and volunteers mark their hands with a 3, signifying their support of campers and small group leaders.
Among the more recent additions to camp is namesakes, or families. Each session of camp includes three faculty or staff members chosen to lead camp families. In addition to learning a lot about lives of namesakes from small group leaders, they hear firsthand from the namesakes themselves the second day of camp through a presentation that traditionally include pictures, background presentations and the sharing of experiences that have helped shape the namesake, as well as a little bit of advice about being a freshman at OU.
“Students remember them,” Partridge explains from her own experience as a namesake. “People will approach me in the grocery store and say, ‘I’m in your family.’ They remember you. It’s a way of making this really big place feel a lot smaller.”
Camp Crimson also serves to make OU feel a little less intimidating. With students from so many different backgrounds, the three-day sessions bring about a shared identity students may otherwise be delayed in establishing.
“They don’t look the same, they’re from different towns, states and countries and yet they can come in and feel as if they’re part of a shared experience the minute they get here,” Partridge says.
In 2015, Camp Crimson and the OU Athletics Department partnered on an effort to bring all incoming student athletes to camp. Student athletes traditionally can lead a somewhat isolated life due to classes, practices and the long list of time constraints they face.
“We thought this would be a great way to get those athletes connected to some students who aren’t participating in sports,” Partridge says. The idea was so successful, it continues as part of this year’s round of camp sessions.
During the 40 or so hours participants are on campus, they’ll experience everything from small group activities, team building exercises, discussions with upperclassmen and members of the OU community, diversity training, a Retro Night dance and even the chance to build a cardboard boat and race it in a pool. In short, they stay busy.
Through it all, and through the ensuing school year, small group leaders invest themselves in the success of younger students. Partridge says about 900 students apply each year to work camp. After a selection process and rigorous training, the nearly 400 chosen as camp leaders volunteer a week of their summer to assist in getting the Sooner experience off to a comfortable start for campers.
“We know we’re getting the best of the best, the most loyal, dedicated students who are willing to come back and invest in the lives of other students,” Partridge believes.
And don’t think that students who serve as camp leaders don’t gain something valuable as well. Vicki Guerra, a Kansas City public relations professional and 2000 Camp Crimson alumna, served two years as a student leader. She says the experience broadened her larger college experience.
“It's a wealth of knowledge and insight that you won’t get anywhere else during your time a OU,” Guerra recalls. “You start forming friendships and connecting with the next generation of OU leaders. My Camp Crimson campers and counselors are still some of my closest friends today. Together, we became leaders on campus and well into our professional careers.”
In the end, after campers have arrived to the cheers of boisterous spirit tunnels and been sent home through that same collection of screaming and chanting students and staff, Partridge believes the success of Camp Crimson can be determined fairly easily.
“If I had to use one word, I would say I hope the students who leave camp feel a sense of belonging,” she concludes. “When they leave camp, they should feel there are people who like them just like the way they are and want them to succeed here.
“Camp tries to transmit the idea that you can do this and we’re going to be here for you along the way.”