Kemper: Overcoming our FOOT fetish

Kemper Fi

This week FOOT will reject over a hundred freshmen. They join good company.

If leading a successful outdoors trip is a function of capacity to mentor and outdoors skills, this campus is filled with rejected aces on both counts. I know freshman counselors, serial camp counselors, a college president, a NOLS graduate and, above all, categorically good people who were weeded out by the FOOT application process.

So first, members of 2014, as your chosen peers take victory laps on East Rock, you will face the temptation to feel inadequate. Don’t.

But second, the rejection raises an interesting question. Granted, FOOT cannot make everyone a leader. But does the program need to spurn so many qualified applicants?

Michael Schulson and Michael Liuzzi wrote a great article about FOOT earlier this year in the Herald (“FOOT offers rite of passage for freshmen,” Oct. 8, 2010). To summarize, it said the way to ace an interview is to emphasize concern for the freshmen, and the way to flunk it is to say, “I want to hang out with FOOT leaders.”

But while FOOT leaders are concerned with freshmen, some are also concerned with the “FOOT mystique” — the desire to become affirmed as a successful Yalie, and to become part of the highly visible FOOT culture on campus. FOOT leadership does not simply confer new responsibility. It affirms one’s place at Yale.

Because the reality is that FOOT leaders love to hang out with other leaders. Despite the emphasis on the trips in August, the rest of the year FOOT can seem to have nothing to do with freshmen. FOOT has houses, parties, an active panlist and tap-lines, and acts as an indicator of social success.

One leader even wrote a piece in the News this fall (“Foot Filosophy,” Sept. 3, 2010) discussing how much fun leaders are to be around. In my own freshman FOOT leader information session, a senior leader broke into tears talking about how the community he found as a FOOT leader saved his college experience.

So of course freshmen want to hang out with them, because FOOT is not just a pre-orientation program. It is also a club, and one fortified by its exclusivity, visibility and prestige.

I have no beef with exclusive clubs. Our campus is full of them and oddly better for it. In clubs, exclusivity allows leaders to perpetuate certain norms and control with whom they fraternize. In our lives, exclusivity is a given: either a challenge to be overcome or a fallacy to be dismissed. But in FOOT, it is kind of awkward.

It is awkward that such an exclusive club stakes its identity on the outdoors, stigmatizing on our campus a normally public and egalitarian space. Many, myself once included, feel uncomfortable expressing any interest in the outdoors, fearing the question we are always asked: “So are you a FOOT leader?”

It is awkward for the rejected that FOOT takes so many good people and places them in a community which is both highly insular yet still highly visible.

And above all, it is awkward that the same people who should pour so much unconditional love and support onto incoming freshmen should then coldly and passively reject three-quarters of them when they come and volunteer to help.

Personally, rejection was humiliating. I applied twice. For reasons that were never explained to me and by people I do not know, I was denied the camaraderie of people I do know and was marked as incapable and unworthy of a community I thought of as my own and a project I deeply believe to be both worthwhile and fun.

I can deal with humiliation. That is part of life. And exclusivity and social prestige are part of Yale. But do they need to be part of FOOT?

I know so many leaders to be well-intentioned, good people. They do a stellar job with the actual trips. But I think flawed institutions can be perpetuated by good people, especially when they are shielded from the undesirable effects of their efforts. And frankly, I think that FOOT, as an on-campus organization, is flawed. It verges on hypocritical; antithetical to all it claims to represent and embody.

Does it need to be this way? I hope not. I think the current leaders are capable of reforming FOOT. I think the class of 2014 could refuse to put up with this nonsense.

I write not to complain but to fix, because I really do think we can fix this. Maybe students could re-apply to lead FOOT trips every year, so the focus of the program would rest solely on the freshmen. Or FOOT could expand so that hundreds of students would come back before each year to spend time together in the woods. Other options certainly exist.

We often find ourselves the subjects of our circumstances, but sometimes we forget that we are also their authors.


  • RMarsh

    I applaud you for your intentions, Mr. Kempner. You’re right to argue that nothing should limit anyone’s ability to enjoy the outdoors. I also agree with you that FOOT rejects many wonderful applicants each year; it is a sad truth.

    But I think you overlook certain realities in your desire to paint FOOT as an elitist organization.

    First of all, the number of FOOT leaders is circumscribed by necessity. It is entirely dependent on demand for the trips. One of the most egalitarian things that FOOT does is pay the entire cost of the trip for FOOT leaders, allowing students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to lead. Accordingly, the price of the trips for incoming freshmen includes the cost of supporting FOOT leaders. If the number of leaders were to rise, so would the cost of the FOOT trips, thus limiting the number of incoming students that could afford to participate.

    And in the end, isn’t the most important thing the number and diversity of freshmen who are able to sample the New England Outdoors and build new friendships?

    Another major flaw with your argument centers around the idea that clubs which limit membership do so to “allow leaders to perpetuate certain norms and control with whom they fraternize.” If that is the case, then how do you explain community service groups that limit volunteers to ensure that the populations they serve get an adequate quality of help? How about debate teams that select a small recruit class in order to train the new members to win? College councils? Singing groups? I could list many further examples. The point is that many clubs limit their membership in order to better achieve their purposes. FOOT is “exclusive,” because leaders must be trained to ensure that their FOOTies are safe and happy. Running an organization like FOOT also requires yearlong efforts – preparing food and equipment, scheduling routes, and handling logistics, to name a few. This requires experienced leaders who have been through it all before.

    You suggest that FOOT could ask leaders to reapply every year – but this would in fact undermine the egalitarian principles that you uphold. If applications were held annually, then the most experienced outdoor enthusiasts would have a clear advantage over those who first stepped into the woods on FOOT. And as I said before, FOOT is unsustainable without a core group of individuals who work year round to ensure that trips are a success. So if you propose to shrink the size of that core group to allow for more annual applicants, doesn’t that make the organization even more exclusive?

    These are just a few of my grievances with your column. Like you, Mr. Kempner, I really do wish we could have more FOOT leaders. But perhaps a better way to do that is to direct efforts into expanding the number of FOOTies that sign up every year. Though bear in mind that such efforts must inevitably steal freshmen away from other wonderful pre-orientation programs like Harvest, CC, or OIS.

  • HenryFoote

    I was also rejected, and I agree entirely.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Hitchiking across country in 1971, in Wyoming I was picked up by young woman, the daughter of the founder of NOLS (Northern Outdoor Leadership School). She took me back to her place, fed me Moose meat (fibrous like chicken or turkey) and made the biggest chocolate chip cookies I ever saw (the size of an apple pie). She’s probably a grandmother now and makes regular size granola and bran cookies.

  • YaleMom

    Kemper Fi, dont’ be sorry! Hitchhiking is dangerous!! I don’t think Yale should encourage it!!

  • notAfootie

    Three and a half years ago, I chose not to do FOOT. I received the promotional flier in the mail, decided I would rather spend more time at home, that I didn’t need to make friends before school started, put the flier in the trash, and didn’t think twice. When I arrived onto Old Campus and saw all of the FOOTies returning, I wish I did FOOT and have wished it since. I would have loved it. I probably would have applied to be a FOOT leader too.

    I full heartedly agree with Mr. Kemper’s column that FOOT is a wonderful organization with fantastic leaders existing within an inherently flawed system. And this system can be fixed – those within the organization just need to recognize that there are problems and put their minds to work in alleviating some of them.

    Mr. Kemper says that you can increase the number of people who did FOOT and this clearly seems like a goal that even those who disagree with his argument should agree with. Why do people like me not do FOOT? There wasn’t enough promotion. There should be a viral YouTube video showing how awesome FOOT is, more events during Camp Yale raising awareness of the program, letters to pre-frosh with testimonials from the trip, Facebook profile pictures during the summer telling people that FOOT was their best experience at Yale and you should apply, and lastly, a system should be set up which non-freshman can also go on FOOT.

    Through these efforts, you will not be taking many people away from other pre-orientation programs. Those people are actively looking at the different programs and choosing not to do FOOT – people like me aren’t. These programs can also do promotion of their own and will probably benefit from such, as well.

    As for making people apply each year, there are clear logistical systems that can occur for this to happen while insuring that FOOT runs as smoothly as before. For instance, a FOOT Board can be elected each term and these people will automatically be leaders whereas everyone else needs to re-apply. There are many answers to the problem that Mr. Kemper highlights in his column and I have full faith that if the wonderful people within the FOOT organization had a discussion to address some of these issues, people like me might have done FOOT and qualified people like Mr. Kemper might have been a FOOT leader or at least not have felt so slighted from a once open community.

  • 201Y1

    Stop trying to dress up your bitterness about not getting to be a FOOT leader as a legitimate issue. FOOT can’t magically make an extra 200 freshman apply–if they could they would–and they wouldn’t do it just so Nic Kemper can be a leader. The suggestion that leaders reapply every year is especially bad; you would have just been rejected three times instead of two.

  • River Tam

    Is it just me or is it news to anyone else that FOOT leadership “affirms one’s place at Yale.”

    I always thought it was a club for socially-awkward hippies.

  • sunshine12345

    I don’t necessarily think FOOT needs more promotion, as it already is the most popular preorientation program at Yale and has seen increases in applications over the past few years.

    Something that should receive more attention is keeping the costs of participating down. While FOOT leaders may have their expenses paid for, the high costs of the program (relative to the other preorientation programs) can be a deterrent for incoming freshmen.

  • HC2011

    Let me begin by saying that I know nothing about the organizational structure that underlies FOOT. That being said, it seems that one obvious solution to this problem would be to give preference to those who have never led a trip before. To combat the issue of needing to maintain an active and enthusiastic leadership core to keep the trips well-executed and enticing, elect a board of directors each year from the group that led the year before. I understand that there are a number of students on campus for whom FOOT is the center of the Yale experience, but it feels like that mentality could be broken if the current model were abandoned in favor of one that aimed to include more people. (Though there would likely still be a few people who were never accepted as FOOT leaders, the number would inevitably be smaller than it is now.) There would still be a FOOT house, and FOOT would continue to have an impact on people’s lives throughout their time at Yale if they wanted it to, but more people could then be welcomed into the deeper FOOT community.

    At the end of the day, the real question seems to be: Why not include more people by capping trip leader opportunities? Isn’t the main goal of the entire program to make sure that incoming freshmen have a vibrant community to welcome them to Yale? The one thing I do know about FOOT is that its student founders and the faculty who advocated for the program these students envisioned had these goals at the forefront of their minds, and it is these foundational goals that have brought FOOT to the place that it is today.

  • exwalkon

    The problem is that FOOT *could* use more leaders like Nicholas Kemper, if he’s indeed as experienced an outdoorsman as he suggests. My freshman year, I went on what was at the time the most strenuous 6-day trip, and neither of my leaders was remotely prepared to lead it (neither had even backpacked prior to their own freshman FOOT trips). Instead, some of the more experienced freshman on our trip ended up essentially leading it. Safety is the number one concern when taking a bunch of random freshman (some of whom have never backpacked before) into the wilderness. If FOOT is turning down NOLS grads and other truly qualified outdoorsmen and -women, it’s clearly not *always* doing so in order to accept equally qualified applicants.

  • Silliman11

    Judging by Kemper’s apparent sense of entitlement to bash organizations he knows little about, (remember his “content over color” column several weeks ago where he demonstrated complete insensitivity with his treatment of racial issues??), I would question whether he is in fact qualified to lead a FOOT trip.

    Sounds to me like the all-too-common case of the pompous Yale student thinking he deserves everything he wants.

  • gkraka

    I agree with the earlier point about the lack of publicity for FOOT. You get one slip of paper in the mail and have to decide almost immediately if you want to camp in the woods, grow crops, meet international or culturally diverse people, or just do nothing. The major issue is the size of the program in relation to the size of Yale. I understand from my brother’s experience (at a smaller liberal arts college in Maine) that the overwhelming majority of incoming freshmen participate in some kind of FOOT-like trip, and small a minority of students participate in some sort of community outreach excursion. The smaller class size then lends itself to tighter post-trip communities forming among different groups, yet there is little to no exclusivity due to the fact that most people experienced similar pre-o trips. Thus, students at smaller schools are far less likely to become enveloped by the larger community as happens at Yale, and are subsequently less likely to hold on to some cliquish version of the pre-orientation that Mr. Kemper rightly highlights in this article. The importance of having a stable leadership group cannot be understated, but to risk turning so many against the whole idea of FOOT through rejection has a net negative impact on the future footie/non-footie relationships across classes.

  • kvee

    The process itself of becoming a FOOT leader is indeed, as Mr. Kemper suggests, entirely un-meritocratic. It works essentially like a society tap–it depends who you know. During set hours, anyone on FOOT can recommend a potential FOOT leader. As a freshman, your chance of getting tapped depends entirely on the recommendations you get from your leaders–and any other FOOT leaders you go out of your way to befriend (people do in fact do this–and, while such actions may be inevitable with popular organizations at Yale, they contradict the fundamental nature of what FOOT is. Becoming phony “friends” with the random people in FOOT you always pretend to be so excited to see is indeed perhaps the best way to get on FOOT. As a freshman, your chances of getting in depend on you having good recommendations and a glowing interview; as a sophomore it just depends upon who you know. In recent years, real tap lines (like Sigep) have developed.

    In some sense, FOOT is the height of pretension at Yale. At Yale we strive to appear simultaneously extremely successful and nonchalant about our success. At Yale, the cool live by the mantra, “Yeah, I’m awesome, and I don’t give a s**t.” Pretending not to give a s**t allows Yalies to convince themselves and others both that they are inherently smart (they are impressive with little effort) and that they good people (working hard is often conflated with being a pretentious douche or a section a**hole).

    FOOT attests to our success in a fashion more Yale than perhaps anything else here. FOOT is known as “good” (in the Yale anti-selling-out way), and indeed it is–with regard to its ideals of wilderness ethics and of introducing Yalies to Yale.
    It’s also a self-proclaimed very “cool” group of people. Its ideals are worthy, but its side effects often are not. Thus a good number of FOOT leaders grow dissatisfied with the organization and drift away from it during their time here. Nonetheless, a core of enthusiastic leaders remain excited about being excited about whatever it is they’re excited about, and a lot of us get the sense that that’s all there is left to FOOT today.

    Good job, Mr. Kemper, for raising an issue worth discussing.

  • yalieeleven

    This editorial doesn’t really make sense in terms of exclusivity…every social group is a means for exclusivity and status differentiation in the end. The real problem is what kvee points out – FOOT is a self-proclaimed very “cool” group of people. The most archetypal FOOT leaders are models that freshmen aspire to become – incredibly social, always excited to see everyone else, work-hard-party-hard, etc. Its what we hear should be the typical Yale student when we first arrive. During May training and shakedown, people are forced to shed anything anti-social about them or anything that’s not normally cool. There’s no room for anxiety or self-reflection. That is destructive as freshmen grow older to realize that this archetype is an illusion…

  • readingyale

    A well-balanced, truthful column. FOOT provides a great service to freshmen. That said, FOOT’s selection process is based on who you know, not what kind of leader you will make. It is as simple as that. Anyone who says otherwise is disingenuous. That’s the reason being a leader is some kind of status symbol–it is more like joining a social club than being interviewed for a job. Every freshman should know that going into the admissions process. The only thing that’s really unfair is that some freshmen don’t know how the process really works.

  • katinthehat131

    @kvee: Calling the FOOT application process “entirely un-meritocratic” is, I think, a bit misguided. As Raffi Friedman in her response and the first comment on this article point out, the process of reviewing applications is incredibly thorough and spread over many, many people. I am not quite cynical enough to think that all the hours devoted to these interviews, readings, and deliberations are subordinate to mere networking. The two student heads of FOOT each devote over 30 hours to the interview stage alone, so dismissing the efforts of them and the other leaders involved in the process as perfunctory ignores the sincere effort and commitment that goes into this process.

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