Friedman: A closer look at the FOOT argument

I have ended the summer and begun school in the same way for the last three years: on a mountaintop at sunrise with new friends. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a FOOT leader in the spring of my freshman year, and I appreciate the honor and responsibility that comes with being the first (albeit sweaty) face that freshmen see as they begin life at Yale. Of course, I also cherish the vibrant, positive FOOT leader community off the trail, a community that came under harsh criticism Monday.

Every organization has its flaws, and FOOT is no exception. I do believe that self-examination is a valuable exercise. However, I feel that Nicolas Kemper (“Overcoming our FOOT fetish,” Feb. 28) has misidentified those flaws through a poorly reasoned argument, and has unfairly represented the organization. My initial reactions to his column were strong and averse; however, I respect Nick’s position as one of the co-coordinators of Yale Outdoors, and hope to engage in some productive dialogue.

Kemper asks why FOOT requires such selectivity. On a practical level, the number of FOOT leaders accepted correlates directly to the approximate number of freshmen who enroll in the program. Even if we accepted 600 leaders, 450 would end up standing around doing nothing. Additionally, FOOT is limited by its resources and financial constraints. We can only equip and feed so many people, and we can only provide so much financial aid to leaders on a budget.

Most importantly, FOOT provides a service, and as such, requires quality control.

We’re not an organization that’s predicated solely on the outdoors — that would be Yale Outdoors, a well-respected organization that is fortunately open to everyone with a passion for nature. Neither do we claim a monopoly over the outdoors or welcoming freshmen to Yale. We’re one of several organizations devoted to freshmen, and we have an application process just as many other student groups on campus do. Why does Kemper not criticize Cultural Connections counselors, or the Harvest application process? What about Tour Guides? Don’t we all love Yale? Why can’t everyone be a FroCo who wants to? His argument seems to imply that anything selective is bad.

But FOOT is not exclusive for the sake of being exclusive. It is not a society that has come together for purely social purposes. We are a large group of friends who are unified by the work we do, just like any organization on campus. A tight knit group of FOOT leaders helps us project a consistently positive tone for incoming freshman, which is vital for the success of the trips.

Inevitably, some organizations are more unified than others. While I can empathize with the pain of being rejected from something, I refuse to apologize for having a strong community.

Of course, like all selection processes, the FOOT leader selection process can be arbitrary. When you’re choosing from a pool of people of such high quality, some worthy applicants can slip through the cracks. I, too, know many people who were practically overqualified to be FOOT leaders and didn’t make it. In years past there has been the appearance of nepotism; it’s something that the Core Heads (what is essentially the “FOOT board”) discussed on our retreat, and we’ve decided to make our selection process more transparent as a result. Ultimately, we’re dedicated to getting those who are best at accomplishing FOOT’s goal: making freshmen feel safe and at home in a foreign environment.

That being said, I have great deal of faith in the selection process, and hope to remove some of the mystique surrounding it. It’s incredibly egalitarian, with over 60 members of the organization involved. It is also thorough, with a written application (which gets read three times), two letters of recommendation, an interview, and two sets of verbal deliberations for each applicant. The decision-making is largely decentralized, so there’s no mob mentality when it comes to a particular applicant. We had almost 200 applicants this year, and I’m proud of the equal consideration we gave each of them.

I was disappointed with the lack of time Kemper spent on proposing solutions to the perceived exclusivity of FOOT. Reselecting leaders year after year is not only inefficient, but redundant, as returning leaders tend to be stronger than those who have never led before. We could have a “FOOT 2.0” for non-freshmen as Kemper suggests, where anyone could come and hang out in the woods before school starts, but that would be an entirely different organization with a different purpose. Maybe Yale Outdoors could pursue something of that nature — I know I’d be tempted to sign up.

I will say that Nick is right about one thing: our goal shouldn’t be to create an exclusive environment, but rather to make Yale a warm and welcoming place for all who enter it for the first time. Being a FOOT leader is just one of the many opportunities Yalies have to do so.

Raffi Friedman is a junior in Trumbull College and a FOOT leader.


  • readingyale

    It’s not Kemper’s job to come up with solutions for your organization.

  • exwalkon

    *Ultimately, we’re dedicated to getting those who are best at accomplishing FOOT’s goal: making freshmen feel safe and at home in a foreign environment.*

    What about making sure that said freshman actually *are* safe? My freshman year, I went on what was at the time the most strenuous 6-day trip that FOOT offered, and neither of my leaders was remotely prepared to lead it (neither had even backpacked prior to their own freshman FOOT experience). Instead, some of the more experienced freshman on our trip ended up essentially leading it. Safety should be FOOT’s 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, as Kemper claims it is, then it’s making a mistake. Yes, enthusiasm and sociability are important in a trip leader. So is actual knowledge of the outdoors.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Choreographed intimacy. It reminds me of the Peace Handshake in churches. And now we will all get to feel togetherness.

  • 201Y1

    @exwalkon: You told that same story on Kemper’s first article. Get over it. FOOT takes a lot of leaders who already have hard skills, but the priority is good people who are good leaders–the hard skills can be taught. FOOT does so during its various training trips, and all FOOT leaders are WFA certified by the time they lead. So was your trip ever actually UNSAFE, or are you just being a snob? Kind of sounds like the latter. There were FOOTies with more hiking experience than the leaders when I was on FOOT freshman year (myself included), but none of us could have done what our leaders did in terms of facilitating the overall trip–i.e. the group dynamic, morale, discussion, etc. Leadership isn’t just being able to set up a tarp.

  • exwalkon

    I could tell detailed, particular stories, but that would be identifying. Here are some general ones: there was a medical evacuation that was handled horribly, lost and broken crucial equipment, poor navigation that led to hiking in the dark, and a bunch of other cases of bad leadership that created situations that were “actually UNSAFE.”

    I would feel more willing to dismiss this as my own “snobbery” if I hadn’t heard very similar stories from other FOOTies whose opinions I trust. I reposted this story because I didn’t feel anyone answered it to my satisfaction on the other article. Yes, you can teach the hard skills of leading a trip (I submit that you can also teach, to some extent, the stuff that goes beyond “setting up a tarp”), but it takes time. Since I’m not the only FOOTie who has had this experience, I’m not confident that FOOT’s admissions and training programs are selecting and preparing the most qualified staff of leaders that they could be.

  • cuttothechase

    What may appear as “unsafe” in exwalkon’s comments is generally the unpredictability of backpacking. I’ve been on NOLS equivalent programs where the most trained leaders/backpackers ended up misreading maps that led my group to hike 3 extra hours in the dark and camp on snow. Medical evacuations are never seamless in nature or in the civilized world given their chaotic and urgent nature. That is the beauty and frustration of the outdoors.

    The most important aspect of this article is Friedman’s defense of the selectivity of FOOT leaders. Of course FOOT as an organization will pick leaders (and I am not a FOOT leader) that best serve the purpose of leading a group of nervous freshmen into the wilderness. While the most skilled backpacker could inevitably lead a group into the woods, it takes a different kind of leader to connect said group and imbue them with a confidence and camraderie that extends to the group members’ lives at Yale. If we are to criticize Yale institutions for being selective, why not look at Yale’s exclusive traditions that base exclusivity not on quality in service, but rather on social connections.

  • exwalkon


    First off, I did NOLS. I’ve been a backpacker since I was a kid. I’ve led trips. There’s a difference between “the unpredictability of backpacking” and what happened when I went on FOOT. I hope you believe me that I know the difference.

    Also, you write: *”it takes a different kind of leader to connect said group and imbue them with a confidence and camaraderie that extends to the group members’ lives at Yale”*

    This is true, but many people are excellent moral leaders and *also* are very skilled outdoorswomen and -men. I know many such people at Yale. Some are FOOT leaders. Some aren’t. Some were rejected by FOOT. Certainly, FOOT doesn’t do a terrible job choosing its leaders. I think it probably does a pretty good job. All I wanted to suggest is that perhaps it could do a slightly better job.