Jumping in Feet First

By Charles McKenzie, August 27, 2019
First-year students get to know community and peers through IC’s Jumpstart program.

Several days before their classmates moved in, a group of first-year Ithaca College students kicked off their college careers blindfolded, confused and holding tightly to a rope.

Not only did they sign up for it, they loved it. It was all part of Ithaca College’s Jumpstart program, which allows first-year students to arrive early to learn about sustainability, team-building, leadership and community engagement, all while exploring in and around Ithaca.

As part of Lead In, which is one of Jumpstart’s four possible tracks, students learned about team-building and leadership through challenges both on the ground and up as high as 50 feet. In this particular ground-based challenge, the blindfolded students were told to make their way along a rope that was zig-zagged around trees in a kind of maze.

Told to find their way out, they snaked through the trees, traversing over and under, in between and through with no sign of the end. The instructor told them if they needed help to raise their hand. They grew frustrated. Still, they fumbled and bumbled blindfolded, thinking the answer had to be close. The instructor repeated again, “When you need help, raise your hand. I’m here to help you.” They tried everything.

One by one, finally overwhelmed, each student raised his or her hand, and the instructor removed the blindfold. As their eyes adjusted to the summer sunshine, they realized that it felt like they were going in circles because they were. The ends of the long rope were connected, and the only way out was to ask for help. 

“It’s great symbolism for starting their college career,” says Michele Lenhart. As director of IC’s Office of Student Engagement (OSE), she joins the Lead In group at Cornell’s challenge course, one of the nation’s largest collegiate ropes courses. “We always have some students on the course who absolutely refuse to raise their hand. You can’t always know everything, and to be successful in college and in life, you can’t always do it on your own.”

Part of that is developing a support network of classmates, another goal of the Jumpstart program. Participants start their first semester with a group of new friends, says Maya Wall-Esteves ’23, who took part in Jumpstart’s Community Plunge, which sends small teams of students to volunteer at a variety of community organizations.

“From the very first second, I was at a table of eight people I had never met before, but I just made all of these connections in the first five minutes,” she says. Her group spent the day cleaning and sorting items at Finger Lakes ReUse, which has a pair of community thrift shops.

“Students do Jumpstart, and then they just blossom. We’ve seen many whose professional trajectories really started there. They then get involved in the Office of Student Engagement, and then we hire them. Before we know it, they are applying for graduate programs in higher education administration. Jumpstart was just the stepping stone.”

Don Austin, assistant director of the Office of Student Engagement

“My team had a lot of good people and hard workers. Since then, we’ve met up a lot, and we’ve laughed nonstop. We left with a sense of accomplishment and some great friends. There were perks on top of perks,” the first-year student says with a laugh. “It was great. I feel like I can do this whole college thing now.”

Nathan Guay ’23, who participated in Lead In, agrees.

“We got a good squad together during Jumpstart, and even during orientation, we were still meeting up daily, so hopefully it will last.”

And it very well could, says Lenhart, who smiles as she describes a pair of nearly identical photos. In one is a group of first-year students who met at Jumpstart, and in the other is the same group as seniors jumping into the fountains together.

“It shows the strong bonds students make in this program,” she says. Also, the retention rates are better for students who do Jumpstart. “They develop connections that help them be successful. Once they know there are people here they can count on and go to for help, they start feeling like, ‘This is a place I can call home and really be successful.’”

People in an apple orchard

Students pick apples at Indian Creek Farm. (Photo by Sheryl Sinkow/Ithaca College)

Lenhart even remembers one pair of students who met at Lead In, and they just kept on meeting. Soon, the now engaged couple will meet at the altar. Far more students find not a life partner but a career path through Jumpstart, says Don Austin, OSE’s assistant director.

“Students do Jumpstart, and then they just blossom. We’ve seen many whose professional trajectories really started there. They then get involved in the Office of Student Engagement, and then we hire them. Before we know it, they are applying for graduate programs in higher education administration. Jumpstart was just the stepping stone.”

Similarly, Abby Haley ’20 attended Community Plunge and then served as a student leader for two more years. The senior said that seeing the impact of her groups’ volunteerism helped lead her to major in documentary studies. “I wanted to pick a major that was more purposeful.” And the benefits extend beyond the campus.

“It shows how committed IC is to our community. Every site I stopped at, the Community Plunge partners were so excited to harness that burst of energy the student groups bring,” Austin said. “Meanwhile, the students learn what each organization does for our community, and they start figuring out how they too might use their own time, energy and skill to make a difference here.”

That’s true of all four Jumpstart programs. Community Plunge was the first. The rest developed organically. Two more started together, Lead In and ECHO (Experiencing Connections by Heading Outdoors). ECHO participants camp overnight along the beautiful Finger Lakes Trail. They learn adventure skills and sustainable practices while making friends and reflecting in small discussion groups.

The newest edition to Jumpstart is the GREEN Tour (Gardening, Recycling, Eating, Enjoying Nature). Students learned about sustainability, mostly through agriculture and food systems from the global to the hyper-local. They picked fruit at Indian Creek Farms and toured Muranda Cheese Company’s farm, where they saw the entire process, from petting newborn calves to tasting the cheese itself to transforming manure into energy. They also visited Taughannock Falls, and finished the program cooling down while paddling in Cayuga Lake. Like in all the programs, the team that explores together bonds together.

Lead In participant Guay says he was proud watching teammates conquer their fear of heights while on the ropes course. Remembering another challenge, his description could just as easily be one of college life itself.

“It was way harder than it looked, and we had to come up with some unique ideas,” he said. “We got feedback from all over and then started trying things. If one didn’t work, we moved on but stayed positive. Everyone contributed in some way. It was fun and really thought-provoking.”

Learn more

For more information about Jumpstart, visit Ithaca.edu/jumpstart-program.