For some students, the most difficult part of the University of Oklahoma’s summer orientation camp, Camp Crimson, isn’t toughing it out through relay races.
It’s not soaking up OU’s history or memorizing OU chants.
It’s saying goodbye to friends (who were strangers just days before) and having to wait out summer until they can pick up where they left off — strengthening the bonds they formed in those wild and crazy jam-packed 54 hours.
2014 Camp Crimson attendee Emma Francois sat inside Walker Tower this summer as her fellow campers buzzed about, pillows and backpacks in tow. The students, roaring new-to-them songs and OU chants (Hi rickety whoop-te-do / Boomer Sooner, Okla-U!) were heading home after the culmination of their Camp Crimson session.
“I really do feel like a college student now — I’m ready to go!” Francois said through the cheering. The freshman with a head full of blond, spiral curls could barely sit still.
“I’m ready to start class now and move in and just be part of this amazing student body that’s willing to stand there for an hour and constantly scream because everyone is so excited to be here.”
It was already mid-July, but Francois envisioned a long summer anticipating her return to OU. How would she ever pass the time?
“Cry? I have no idea,” she joked (though the thought of leaving our friends makes us a little dramatic too). “(I’ll) sit by the door, bags packed.”
The Tulsa native had been to OU several times before as her high school speech and debate team competed on campus. She said the university wowed her with its Arabic program (her intended major), and it was clear to her after touring other universities that OU “just had that feeling.” And Camp Crimson reaffirmed what she already knew — that she belonged at OU.
“I was always hyped before but it was kind of like OU was this foreign body,” Francois said. “I didn’t know a lot about it. I was kind of on the outside looking in. But Camp Crimson broke down that invisible barrier between me and being a Sooner.”
So, what’s it all about?
Camp Crimson coordinator Zac Stevens will be the first to tell you: This three-day, two-night camp keeps you busy. Days are filled with team-building activities like constructing cardboard boats and setting sail across a pool and get-to-know-me exercises that help campers find a common ground with one another.
“We have 54 hours for camp, and at least four of those are used for sleeping,” Stevens joked.
Kicking off in 1996 with 120 campers, Camp Crimson has grown to about 2,000 annual attendees, with five sessions each summer (Transfer, Hi-Rickety, Boomer, Sooner and OKU).
Students become familiar with campus as their daily activities take them from one building to the next. Stevens said the camp isn’t intended to overload students with facts and figures. Instead, the campers learn time-honored traditions and focus on connecting with their small group leaders and group mates.
Campers not only connect with other incoming freshmen and small group leaders (usually OU upper-classmen), but they also get the chance to form relationships with namesakes, or faculty and staff selected by Camp Crimson organizers to spend time with campers and share their favorite OU memories. Stevens said the namesakes get across to students that faculty and staff are accessible and willing to help students.
Providing a lifeline for new students
The most important part of Camp Crimson, though? Building that circle of friends and establishing a support system in them.
It’s a different experience depending on what group you’re in, Stevens said. The group experience really relies on what personalities make up that group, especially when it comes to the small group leaders who are taking charge and guiding the campers.
“They’re the ones that make the difference,” he said.
Some are detail-oriented and like nothing better than to stay on course. Others welcome spontaneity and revel in competition. And others tend to be more quiet and reflective. Stevens said the divvying up of group leaders is extremely intentional, with each group getting a mix of personalities to ensure all campers can truly relate to a leader.
Stevens said it can be difficult for the campers to reach out to their small group leaders during the school year, but it shouldn’t be. Sometimes campers feel they’re inconveniencing their SGL, but Stevens reminds campers that the SGLs are there for a reason — because they want to lend a hand whenever they’re needed.
2014 SGL Courtney Caldwell said she wants nothing more than to be helpful to her campers and stay connected once camp ends.
“It’s more than just a mentor/mentee thing,” Caldwell said. “Obviously I’m going to be there to guide them through their freshmen year but more than anything I just want to be their friends.”
At the end of Caldwell’s Camp Crimson session, she said she’d already heard from several campers that they’re interested in becoming an SGL, too. She had applied between her freshman and sophomore years and wasn’t accepted, but she said that just proved how competitive the process is. Her former SGLs encouraged her to keep at it and apply again.
“I was just blown away by the opportunity,” the junior public relations major said of her first SGL experience. “It’s made me fall in love with OU all over again.”
She hopes her passion to include and support others rubs off on her campers because she believes that’s one of the core values at OU. After spending 54 hours getting to know them, she said she’s sure they’re destined to have a positive impact on OU and its students.
“The thing I’m most excited about now that camp is over is just watching my campers do big things on campus,” she said.
Stepping out and starting over
For some campers, Camp Crimson is a chance to really be themselves without fear of what others will say. Some find that by the end of their three-day orientation, they’ve gone from reserved to uninhibited, all thanks to the encouragement and acceptance of their fellow campers. It’s stories like those that Stevens said resonate with him the most.
“For a lot of students, this is the first time they’ve ever felt accepted for who they are,” he said.
Some have come from a small town and have felt boxed in by what people expect them to be, but coming to a new campus, and being surrounded by unfamiliar faces, allows them to wipe the slate clean.
“Some have never been the center of attention and now they’re leading the group,” Stevens said.
Another of Stevens’ favorite Camp Crimson success stories goes like this: Out-of-state students who, for their whole lives, had planned to attend the University of Texas — or any other university — have landed at OU to take a few classes. But, by the end of camp, the students have been completely won over by OU.
J.D. Baker of Edmond is one of those students whose path to another university zigged instead of zagged and led him to OU.
“There’s a community about it here, and I love the state of Oklahoma in general,” he said at the end of his Camp Crimson session. “OU tries to cultivate the heritage that we have in this state.”
Baker said one of the camp’s biggest benefits is acclimating students to campus and alleviating worries about fitting in at their home away from home.
“Some of the kids, this is their first time being on campus, and it really does relieve that stress of ‘Oh, how am I going to do the first day?’ Now I know. I can go on my first day next month and know my way around pretty well and know I’m in a good, comfortable place.”
Welcome to the OU family
Camp Crimson attendee Farah Naqvi of Tulsa admitted OU wasn’t her No. 1 choice at first, but after walking around campus and touring the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, she was convinced it was the place for her.
“I had all these predispositions about how a state school was and how a huge school was and OU was so much different than that,” she said. “It was more community-based than I thought it would be, and it really individualizes the kids here. It’s just a small school with so many more people.”
Often reserved, Naqvi said camp gave her the opportunity to come out of her shell, to become more comfortable walking up to strangers and saying hello. She recalled a game during camp that required her to eat a cherry off another camper’s nose (that camper is now one of her best friends at OU) and dip her nose in chocolate and write “OU” on another camper’s face. Awkward as they were, those situations not only challenged her but helped her grow.
Another activity required a camper to stand in a circle of students whose eyes were closed. The standing camper was prompted to touch someone who made them laugh, then someone who you felt you could trust, someone who was a great leader.
“It was really heartwarming to know that people felt that way about me,” she said. “When I was standing up I felt like I should touch every single person in the circle.”
Ready to discover your OU family? Register for Camp Crimson's 2015 sessions here!