An experienced camper, Marie-Hélène Lyonnais had no anxiety about a seven-day canoeing trip through Algonquin Park in August.
The Outward Bound expedition was part of the Loran scholarship she won in the spring – an award that offers a range of extracurricular experiences, along with covering tuition and living costs for four years.
Yet nothing in Ms. Lyonnais's prior experience had prepared her for what turned out to be seven solid days of rain, ranging from torrential to steady, to be endured in the company of 30 other award winners she had met only once before.
"Nothing ever dried from Day 1. You woke up every morning and put on wet socks to go into the cold," she said.
When the campers used their canoe paddles to dig ditches that could direct the water flow away from their camp sites, the ditches flooded.
"You really want to get to know people, but it was hard to be at your best," Ms. Lyonnais said.
The experience, however, prepared the 19-year-old for her first year of law school at McGill University in a way few other weeks could have, she said. "We faced challenges that were new to a lot of us and situations we had not seen before. But we were a team in the end."
Long term, the hope of the organizers is that the students will begin friendships that last their entire lives. Short term, the goal is to throw the students into a challenging, unfamiliar situation, only the first of many they will face when they begin university.
"Sometimes I hear from [students] during the year when they hit that first rough spot," said Franca Gucciardi, chief executive officer of the Loran Scholars Foundation. "And they kind of remember the moments they were out there when they thought, 'I can't do this.'"
Such extensive outdoor challenges before first year are increasingly being offered by private and public American universities, including the University of California at Santa Cruz and Duke University. In Canada, however, they are still unusual. Those in first year at the University of Toronto's New College can go on a five-night camping trip, and Ryerson University students can sign up for an overnight camping day at Toronto Island.
Self-confidence, educators say, will come from conquering the elements while making new friends.
"Part of this is to learn to build confidence and go into the unknown," Ms. Gucciardi said. "So they do have to flex that muscle of resilience."
And on a trip where everyone has weaknesses, students are more likely to voice their anxieties about university and living away from home. Without civilization and technology, the students have time to think.
That reflection culminated at the end of the trip, when each student spent 24 hours alone in an isolated area. They received no watch, no books and no navigation devices. Instead, they set up a tarp to protect themselves from the elements, with only a sleeping bag, some food and a journal.
"Twenty-four hours gives you a lot of time," said Ilakkiyan Jeyakumar, a student who will be attending the University of British Columbia in the engineering program. "I thought about the weight of living across the country," he said.
During the 24 hours alone, students were encouraged to write a letter to themselves. It was then stored and will be mailed to them at the beginning of the winter term by the foundation.
Ms. Lyonnais is already looking forward to reading her own advice. She had been anxious and stressed about getting into McGill and told herself to try not to get into that frame of mind again.
"I just told myself to remember how simple life can be, to stay relaxed and how lucky I am to be having this experience," she said.
Ryerson University welcomes helicopter parents as they transition to an 'empty nest'
For many parents, dropping off students during orientation week marks a new "empty nest" beginning when they step back and let their offspring fly.
For helicopter parents, however, it's all hands on deck.
At Ryerson University, the latter group is welcomed rather than shunned. The Toronto university holds seminars for parents and other family members or friends on how to support the students.
"When I was a student, my parents were not involved," said Jen Gonzales, the director of Student Life at Ryerson. "It's different now. We want to let them know that our doors are open," she said.
The university holds online and in-person seminars in the summer and during orientation that tell parents what counselling and learning resources are available on campus, as well as what kind of questions to ask to learn what is happening at school.
A handbook for parents, titled So They're Off to University: The Agony and the Ecstasy, covers scenarios that guide parents through what to do if students struggle academically, face a mental-health crisis or have financial issues, and includes a calendar with important academic dates.
"We used to stand in front of a room of parents and students, and the parents would say, 'Where is my orientation week?' Parents are going through a transition themselves and we are happy to help them," Ms. Gonzales said.
– Simona Chiose