Going head to head for FOOT

Kate Bowden ’11 checked her PO box Tuesday. And Wednesday. And Wednesday again — just to be sure. The object of her self-described compulsive postal stalking? A coveted acceptance letter, one that would allow her to lead a small group of dirt-streaked, jittery freshmen across the forests of New England.

Bowden was not alone in her anxious anticipation of the day that decision letters for Freshmen Outdoor Orientation Trip, or FOOT, leaders would arrive. In fact, 184 other freshmen and sophomores also haunted the post office this past week, crossing their fingers that they would be among the lucky few to receive a congratulatory letter.

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Sadly, most were disappointed — only 50 new leaders were selected from the pool of applicants.

The increasing numbers of students vying to lead “FOOTies,” the title given to all incoming freshman FOOT participants, and the relatively static number of leader spots have given the FOOT-leader community, like so many other organizations at Yale, an aura of selectivity.

But the competition to become a part of FOOT unnerves leaders past and present, because FOOT’s mission — welcoming new freshman with open arms into the Yale community — is the antithesis of selectivity. If the FOOT-leader community can be summed up as “camaraderie and love to the umpteenth degree,” as one slightly inebriated sophomore leader put it, why must dozens of enthusiastic freshmen quietly shed tears months later upon receiving rejection letters?

For many, joining the fun-loving, tight-knit FOOT community is one of the biggest draws of becoming a leader — but FOOT leaders emphasize that the community is merely a side benefit of leadership. In other words, wanting to become part of a culture that defines its members’ time at Yale is not in itself a sufficient reason to apply. It’s all about the trips and becoming mentors to freshmen, the leaders say.

“It’s become something where it’s this whole social scene,” FOOT leader John Mittermeier ’08 explained. “But that’s not what the organization is about in its purpose or in its origins. It’s a side product of the trips.”

‘FOOT time’

While the competition to be accepted as a FOOT leader may be intense, the community itself is anything but.

Mittermeier — who was one of last year’s “Poobahs,” or coordinators, a self-deprecating title drawn from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” — feels most at home on the trail, an environment conducive to forming lasting bonds with group members. FOOT trips, he said, allow leaders and FOOTies to interact away from the often stressful confines of Yale, both physically and mentally: Watches are taken away from all FOOTies, who are sometimes told they are on “FOOT time.”

The laid-back attitude of the trips often creates an atmosphere of spontaneity, a key feature of all FOOT trips. The August before Mittermeier’s junior year, for example, his group ended up spooning day-old, melted ice cream off a girl’s shorts — the pair she’d been wearing all week — on the bus ride home. On Bowden’s trip, a fellow FOOTie ate a slug on a dare and then refused to collect her payment, saying she had wanted to do it all along.

These moments make FOOT an object of nostalgia and longing, a craving most try to satisfy by going on more trips — a constant theme since the program’s founding almost 25 years ago.

The brainchild of Jamie Williams ’85 and Greg Felt ’89, FOOT first set out in August 1985. There were six trips and 12 leaders, all of whom fit in one van, recalled FOOT director Priscilla Kellert ’74 FES ’81, affectionately known as “Cilla” to FOOT leaders past and present.

In order to win the administration’s approval, the pair needed to hire a professional director to ensure the program’s continuity. Through networking, they found that person in Kellert, now a teacher at New Haven’s Hopkins School, who has remained at the helm of FOOT since its inception, running the program out of her attic and basement.

FOOT has expanded steadily over the past 20 or so years, but the basic FOOT model — two leaders taking a group of seven to 10 freshman into the woods with backpacks and food, playing games and getting to know one another — has remained the same, Kellert said.

‘Flannel and jorts’

For Mittermeier, the boisterous FOOT gatherings back on campus are largely an attempt to recreate the friendly intimacy achieved in the woods.

When the FOOT trips return to Yale after four or six days in the wilderness, many individual groups hold reunions and get-togethers throughout the year, or even for several years afterward. These groups often serve as a reference point amid the confusion of freshman year for the 350-odd freshmen who participate.

Some FOOTies have also been known to date post-FOOT — but never while on FOOT, of course, given the cardinal rule of “no hooking up on FOOT.”

Mittermeier, who called his own freshman FOOT trip “fantastic,” said he had no plans to join the larger FOOT-leader community. But at the urging of his leader, he applied and was accepted — and became a member of what some have lovingly described as a “cult.”

FOOT’s primary mission is to give incoming freshmen a positive first impression of Yale, according to Mittermeier. In his view, the FOOT community that has grown up around the trips is entirely secondary to this purpose.

Though it now houses Yalies not involved with FOOT, the “FOOT house” on Dwight Street was once a gathering place for this community, FOOT leader and house resident Adam Horowitz ’09 said.

“But the spirit of FOOT is always alive in here,” added Horowitz — a spirit perhaps emblemized by the fire pit in the yard surrounded by a ring of comfortably broken-in plastic and wicker chairs.

For many, FOOT has become the most important aspect of their time at Yale.

“It has been one of my formative Yale experiences,” Dan Turner-Evans ’08 said. “My closest friends come from the FOOT community. They’re similar, down-to-earth people.”

In addition to several program-specific events throughout the year — retreats, equipment checks and the annual May training trip — most of the get-togethers are purely social, such as the “flannel and jort” party thrown in a Timothy Dwight College suite last month. (“Jort,” of course, is the abbreviated form of “jean shorts.” Although many people were wearing flannel, no brave souls donned jorts.)

But while many leaders say much of their social life at school revolves around FOOT, others prefer to concentrate on alternative activities during the academic year.

“I feel part of the FOOT community, but at the same time, it’s not a huge part of my social life at school,” diversity committee, or “core,” head Nicky Bernstein ’09 said. “I think that throughout the year, FOOT is different things for different people.”

‘Right’ vs. ‘Wrong’

Leaders participate in the community to different extents during the school year, yet the romanticized openness of FOOT is a draw for nearly all applicants — an openness that has its limits.

Although most of the students who apply are qualified to lead, there are nonetheless “right” and “wrong” reasons to join FOOT. The right reasons, by universal consensus: to give incoming freshmen a fun and safe experience and to be a mentor throughout the year. The wrong reason: to join the “FOOT club,” as Mittermeier put it.

“We don’t want to be a social club,” he explained. “We want to accept people who really want to be FOOT leaders and really care about that week in August.”

Still, many applicants described the FOOT community as integral to the program’s appeal. One freshman hopeful even described it as “a way to get more friends.”

In addition to evaluating applicant motivation, the Poobahs also determine whether the applicant has the necessary “soft skills” to manage group dynamics and provide strong leadership on the trail, current Poobahs Avani Dholakia ’09 and Ian Dull ’09 said.

“Hard skills” — knowing how to rig a “bear bag” or light a portable stove — are not required; safety and skills training take place during the May trips.

The process of becoming a FOOT leader is one of the quirkier ones on a campus known for intricate application rituals. The application asks prospective leaders to respond to scenarios such as, “William and Jane have not been seen since you got into camp, and you finally spot them cuddling on a hill near camp ‘collecting flowers’ for dinner.”

In interviews, applicants face questions like, “Would you rather sweat cheese when you see a cute member of the opposite sex, or have every third thought be written over your head?”

The application and interview, together with recommendations from FOOT leaders or others on campus, are then reviewed by the two Poobahs and the core heads.

“Rejecting people as FOOT leaders was probably the worst part of my job,” said Aaron Zelinsky ’06, one of the 2004-’05 Poobahs and a FOOT legend for having led a trip 28 miles in the wrong direction on the trail. “I would love for every kid to be a FOOT leader … but the reality is that there isn’t enough room for everyone.”

But some of the rejected students hope that by reapplying the next year, their demonstrated dedication to FOOT will earn them a coveted spot.

Nathan Gould ’10, who was turned away last year but applied again this year, said he hopes the Poobahs will take into account his skill at understanding people, a quality he considers essential for a FOOT leader. He hopes his lack of outdoors experience will not be held against him.

Still, Gould is not holding his breath: He knows that only a handful of the 38 sophomore applicants will be accepted.

Even after the leaders are chosen, the selectivity does not end. Competition for the top spots in FOOT itself — the core heads and the Poobahs — is often fierce, though generally good-natured.

“It’s that same paradox where it’s positive that so many people want to be involved, but sad because qualified people don’t get positions,” Mittermeier said.

‘Something to work on’

Although the selection process has been refined over the years by each incoming Poobah team, it still faces several dilemmas, the most obvious being that the number of qualified applicants exceeds the number of leader slots. Of course, the program could accept more leaders, but although this solution is discussed at every FOOT retreat, according to former Poobahs, it has thus far been dismissed.

Adding more leaders to the roster would mean that not all “leaders” would actually be able to lead trips, Mittermeier said. It would also drive up the cost of the program — currently $350 for four-day trips and $395 for six-day, although extensive financial aid is available — since the fees pay for leader housing and food in August and May. Attracting more freshmen would allow for an increase in trip leaders, Mittermeier said.

In order to expand, the program could try to tap the significant segment of each incoming freshman class that does not participate in any pre-orientation program, Zelinsky said. But trying to woo students away from programs like Cultural Connections and Orientation for International Students might not be out of the question, either, he added.

About 100 students each do CC and OIS, compared to roughly 350 who sign up for FOOT. A total of around 700 freshmen — out of an incoming class of 1,300 — participate in one of Yale’s pre-orientation programs each year, according to Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque.

Although efforts to measurably expand the program have stalled, the application process does provide a mechanism for the Poobahs to address another of the program’s ongoing challenges: how to increase the diversity of FOOT leaders so that the group better represents the entire Yale campus.

For about a decade, the program has had a “diversity core,” which works to raise awareness of diversity shortcomings among the FOOT leaders and to make FOOT more accessible to all incoming freshmen, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances.

FOOT has a significantly lower proportion of racial-minority and, in particular, international students than the Yale undergraduate student body, according to an internal survey, diversity core head Bernstein said. He attributed this disparity for the most part to the overlap with CC and OIS, which cater to specific segments of the incoming freshman class. Another factor that may contribute is long-standing cultural norms that white, upper-middle-class families in the Northeast are most likely to go camping, and that these students will therefore be more inclined to sign up for FOOT, Bernstein said.

“We don’t want all the leaders to be from the Northeast, wear Patagonia and go hiking all the time,” Mittermeier said half-jokingly. “Diversity is something FOOT still needs to work on.”

The diversity core aims to encourage students who have participated in other pre-orientation programs to apply to be FOOT leaders. While FOOT has no formal policy on diversity of any kind — racial, ethnic, academic or extracurricular — assembling a diverse group of leaders each year is a goal for those making the leader selections, Bernstein said.

Increasing FOOT’s diversity has been a long-term effort, Kellert said, and every year, the Poobahs and the diversity core try new tactics to encourage a wider range of students to apply.

But what consumes the attention of each new crop of FOOTies, unaware of the inner workings of the program, are the more than 6,100 tortillas, around 200 family-size tubs of peanut butter and over 725 pounds of cheese that will sustain this August’s trips.

The class of 2012 better be hungry.

Comments

  • Classy

    I can almost smell the collective Type-A decorum this entire thing is made of. It's sad, because it IS the upper-middle-class white kids who grew up hiking that go on these things, who meet other upper-middle-class white kids who grew up hiking.

    Unconstructive and ego-stroking all at the same time. What a disappointment.