Secrets of the Sophomore Retreat

Posted by Yilong Peng

Following the nefarious Freshman Fifteen comes the infamous Sophomore Slump, a phenomenon commonly cited in sports but not exempt from, well, actual sophomores. It is a time when the “new experience” of college loses the sheen of the “new”, when the familiarity of the scholastic environment conflicts with the novel prospects of a future yet to come. The slump didn’t hit me – nothing as dramatic as that. Instead, it creeped up, until winter break was over and I was back at school, and before I knew it, January had bled into March, with May approaching too fast for my liking.

On a separate but related note, there is a tradition held by each McDermott Class known as the “Senior Retreat,” where scholars travel as a cohort in their final year of college to visit (or re-visit) a destination and share in experiences together, a final “huzzah” to the triumph of undergraduate life. Within the 2017 Class of Scholars, some of us were not content to wait until our graduating year in 2021 to touch base and travel together.

Anna Schaeffer, a fellow ’17, took action. In September of 2018, she planted the idea for a “Sophomore Retreat”; a weekend excursion to Fossil Rim, a wildlife sanctuary, where we would volunteer, get a guided tour, and spend a night out camping. As with most plans, the message was “liked” in the shared group chat and promptly forgotten. Nevertheless, Anna persisted. Over the next six months, the idea took root through her nurturing. An idea became a plan, a plan sprouted into a proposal, and a weekend in early March was finalized.

One of the friendly faces soon to greet us

After leaving campus at 6am (the only part of the experience I regret), our carpool fleet arrived at Fossil Rim to greet the first warm days of March. I won’t get all sappy with you and proclaim it to have been the arrival of Spring, but it totally was. Ten of us from the class of ’17 arrived at the sanctuary and met Andrew, the volunteer coordinator who showed us around and assigned us to our volunteer positions. Throughout the morning, it dawned on me how much manpower and how many hours had been invested in the sanctuary. We mucked and managed the petting zoo, picked up trash from where the raccoons had thrown their nightly raves, and inventoried the gift shop. These are just a few tasks out of the hundreds that allow Fossil Rim to keep running.

There is no joy like reading “50 Floppy Sloths” on the side of a box you’re about to open

After a lunch of champions (read: donuts slathered with peanut butter), the ten of us embarked on a guided tour, where we would be able to drive right up next to the wildlife and feed them. On an unrelated note, animal treats taste suspiciously similar to Kellogg’s Mini-Wheats.

Yilong and Evan only have eyes for the emu, who clearly has other priorities

Out on the dirt road, bumping along in an open-sided truck, we passed by wildebeest and deer, goats and rhinos, while Andrew supplied a steady stream of information from the driver’s seat. Our tour took us deep into the park, where we saw cheetahs, wolves, and a precious black-footed cat. The highlight of the tour was definitely the giraffes, who won instant acclaim for being the only species that we could feed by hand. I’ll never forget the look of surprise on Alex’s face when one of them snuck up behind him and stuck its entire tongue in his cup of food.

Chirag’s face = pure joy.

It was only later I realized the last time I had fed giraffes was on my third grade field trip to the Virginia Zoo. A decade had elapsed since then, and somewhere lost in it was the wonder that accompanied every unique experience. Eight-year-old me would have looked upon my current situation and gone, “You have a car now, and disposable income, and common sense! Use them!” And eight-year-old me, in one of his rare moments, would have been absolutely correct.

John and the giraffe had a lot in common… healthy eating and height. Immediate friendship!

As the afternoon faded to evening, we drove out of the park into town, dined on Tex-Mex, and then headed back after buying s’mores ingredients for the evening campfire. Two interns, both of them not much older than we are, helped us start a campfire. The rest of the interns trickled in. While they came from all different backgrounds and schools across the United States, they all shared the same passion for the work they did in animal conservation, as well as Dungeons and Dragons, much to Christian and John’s delight. With Chirag providing background music on his guitar, we fanned out in a ring and talked about books we had read, pointed out constellations, and watched Evan roast mini chocolate pies in the embers of our campfire.

Chirag not only brought his guitar but also his knowledge of the constellations!

That weekend excursion will remain in my fondest memories for years to come for a simple reason: it was new. My days at school were different – a conversation here, a meeting there – and yet they weren’t. I stuck to a schedule, a necessity of life, but I made a mistake in only sticking to that schedule. In doing so, I reminisced on the past and ruminated about the future and forgot to create the present. Fossil Rim, and the wonderful people I got to share it with, reminded me of the importance of doing so.

        Big shoutout to everyone I didn’t namedrop: Cameron, Taylor, Bethany, Roma; thank you all for being part of this incredible experience!

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