Westmont Magazine New Students Take a Hike Before Class
For 36 years Inoculum has challenged incoming students to push themselves physically, intellectually and spiritually.
This year, 16 first-year students, representing states from Hawaii to Massachusetts, enrolled in Inoculum, a unique orientation program at Westmont. For 12 days in August they trekked through the North Yosemite backcountry, earning several units of academic and physical education credit.
During breaks from backpacking they discussed “Serve God, Save the Planet” by Matthew Sleeth. They’ll also write a paper about the book later in the semester.
Few schools offer courses like Inoculum. “It’s a unique and powerful experience to think about environmental stewardship in the beauty of the high Sierra,” says Tom Knecht, assistant professor of political science.
Alumnus Dave Willis created the program in 1974. The coordinator of Sierra Treks, which builds Christian faith through wilderness experiences, Willis continues to lead Inoculum. Knecht and Eileen McMahon, assistant professor of biology, were the faculty leaders this year. Tom Fikes, associate professor of psychology, has been involved with the program since 1998 and joined the group during the excursion as a trekking guide.
“Eleven days in the backcountry is not for everyone, but students gain so much,” says McMahon, an Inoculum veteran. “You work hard to carry that heavy pack up the mountain pass and are rewarded with the incredible view of snow-capped mountains and crystal blue sky unfolding before you as far as the distant horizon. You struggle to understand thought-provoking readings and are rewarded with rich, deep conversation around the campfire under millions of glittering stars. Students may never get another opportunity like this.”
Many students say the best part of the trip is the solitude and contemplation away from cell phones and social networking.
“One memorable moment for me was watching a student who was afraid of heights make it to the top of the 12,000-foot Tower Peak we climb in Yosemite,” McMahon says. “There are quite a few challenging parts. We were wearing helmets and were roped in. When the student was particularly scared, all the others rallied around her, cheering her on. One took her hand. Another pointed to exactly where she should plant her feet or grab a hand-hold on a rock. Others positioned themselves right downhill so she knew someone could catch her if she slipped. It was beautiful to watch how they all worked as a team and cared for one another. There was much cheering as she made it to the top.”