They are given four strips of cardboard, duct tape and several cans of blue and gray spray paint. Huddled on the porch of a wooden cabin, a group of soon-to-be University of Memphis freshmen quietly contemplates how to craft a functioning boat from these materials.
“Weight displacement seems important,” one of them says, breaking the silence.
“Well, the most important thing is that it floats,” another mentions. “How in the world are we going to get this thing to float?”
“Only by the grace of God,” one of them finally concludes.
After settling on an initial design, the family of campers begins construction. As the boat starts to shape, U of M senior Zach Lyons can be heard in the distance.
“Lunch time!” he announces into a bullhorn as he circles the campground in a maroon SUV. The froshes from Cabin 4, satisfied with their progress, lock their work inside their cabin and wash up before going to Bingham Bistro.
The Boat Race is one of the many activities for incoming freshmen at the University of Memphis’ Frosh Camp. In its 14th year, Frosh Camp is a four-day experience that eases the transition from high school to college life for each new group of Tigers.
“Frosh Camp is a unique experience in itself,” says U of M senior and camp counselor Mary Clayton Wilson. “There’s just something about Memphis and Frosh Camp that really gets freshmen excited about being a Tiger.”
Wilson did not attend Frosh Camp before coming to the University and “has regretted it ever since.”
“My first and second years in college, I heard everyone talk about Frosh Camp,” says Wilson, a native of Lewisburg, Tenn. “I decided I wanted to see what Frosh Camp was all about, so I applied to be a counselor going into my junior year of college and this is now my third year doing it. I can’t imagine not doing it.”
Upon arrival, campers are divided into families. Each family has a set of parents, two U of M upperclassmen. The families are set up to help introduce the froshes to the Tiger family that the University strives to have on campus.
“We really get a chance to interact with different incoming freshmen on a personal level,” says Melvin Guy, a senior sports management major. “You get real attached to your family and cabin. You get to meet new people and get to know more than just their names. You get to know their personalities and their lifestyles.”
The camp is set up to mirror the average college day in hopes of giving the students an idea of what to expect when they arrive on campus. In the mornings, campers participate in interactive workshops, similar to going to class. These workshops cover a variety of topics from University traditions to getting involved on campus to social issues.
In the afternoons, they have outside activities, like the boat races, “Family Olympics” and swimming. Each evening, the campers have a themed mixer.
While Frosh Camp does hope to teach the students about the University, it also aims to ignite Tiger pride in each new student.
“The counselors work together for five or six months to prepare for Frosh Camp,” says Wilson. “There’s just no better feeling than knowing that these freshmen are excited about being a Tiger, and it’s exciting that we get to help them adapt to college life.”
And it is students helping students.
Frosh Camp has always been student run. In the spring of 1994, U of M students Russ Henry, Corey Hickerson and Bill Murray were discussing how much they had to learn during their first year of college.
Students at the U of M’s Frosh Camp build and then race their “boats” in one of many bonding-type activities at the camp near Nashville. The camp seeks to instill a sense of Tiger pride before incoming freshmen even step foot on campus. About 450 new students attend the camp each summer.
“We said, ‘Wouldn’t life have been so much easier if when we came to the University we knew everything we know now,’” says Henry, a 1997 graduate of the University.
Shortly after that discussion, Hickerson, who was the SGA president at the time, attended a conference at Texas A&M University. While there he learned about Fish Camp, A&M’s incoming freshman program.
“Corey said it was a great idea and that we ought to do something similar,” says Henry. “We had kind of a peer-mentor goal in mind. Let’s show the new students how to do everything the easiest and best way from day one instead of them having to take a year to figure it out. Lo and behold, it turned out to be a great idea.”
The trio met with U of M administrators, and after the idea was approved, the planning began.
“We had to figure out what we were going to do, how it should work, who was going to be there, how we were going to get new students to come and design marketing materials,” says Henry. “It was kind of crazy, but somehow it happened.”
They designed a camp brochure, made countless calls and spent many late nights in the Student Government Office detailing the camp schedule.
They also needed a location. Henry says they wanted somewhere secluded where the focus would be entirely on the University of Memphis. After calling several camps, they set up a meeting with the owner of Camp NaCoMe, a campground located about 100 miles southwest of Nashville.
“I don’t know what this camp owner was thinking letting a bunch of college students invade his camp for a week,” says Henry. “But he did. He was a great guy.”
NaCoMe is equipped to handle 225 campers plus the 60 or so counselors. All but three of the cabins are air-conditioned. The wooded campground also has a dining hall, recreation center, open-aired assembly hall and canteen area along with a lake for swimming.
So when July rolled around, Frosh Camp had approximately 60 incoming freshmen signed up for the initial camp. Henry says a lot of luck was involved in pulling the camp together, but the hard work that went into its planning also paid off.
“We knew this thing had to be absolutely perfect,” says Henry. “If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t going to happen again. People wouldn’t support it. It just wasn’t going to fly. So we took every precaution we possibly could to make sure it went as smooth as possible, and it did.”
And the camp continues to grow.
What started out as 60 campers has now grown into 450 per summer. The formula for success seems to be a mixture of high-energy activities along with genuine love for the University, and that starts with the camp counselors, or “moms and dads,” as they are commonly called.
“We keep the energy high and keep the adrenaline pumping,” says Wilson. “We know we can sleep at home. Frosh Camp is a one-time experience for these incoming freshmen.”
Whether it’s chanting to see which cabin goes to breakfast first or an impromptu singing of the University’s fight song, the energy level is usually at fever pitch. And that was one of the goals the founders of Frosh Camp hoped for, and that excitement quickly connects those new students to Tiger pride.
“With everything we did, we sang the fight song,” says Henry of that first Frosh Camp. “On campus it seemed like no one knew our fight song, so we set out to make sure that everybody at camp left knowing it. It was kind of our call to order. If you do that for four days, you’re going to leave excited about the University. That’s what we wanted to accomplish.”
While the atmosphere is almost always lively, there are a few quiet, emotional moments. Each night ends with a family fireside chat. In the closing hours of the night, the families share their thoughts and experiences of the day.
“I’ve had some get a little emotional in the past,” says Wilson. “Sometimes you’ll get frustrated, but when you’re at the fireside and these kids are opening up to you, you know that you had an impact on them and that’s the biggest rush.”
Guy adds, “It’s really kind of inspirational because you see that you can have an effect on other people. You can bring people out of their shells. I think that’s the main thing that we try to do here. We try to make people open up and experience new things.”
Looking back, Henry remembers watching those first students step off the bus. That group of U of M students, now U of M alumni, took it upon themselves to improve their University.
“I still can’t believe the University let these 20 or 25 students take 60 freshmen off in the middle of the woods for four days with nobody from the University there,” says Henry with a laugh. “It’s just tremendous to think that that’s how it happened. We set out with a pretty modest, purist objective of just wanting to help some people. Then it started growing, and look at it now.”
The University sends several administrators to camp now, but the spirit and fire at Frosh Camp still come from the hands and hearts of U of M students.
As for Cabin 4’s boat, well, it did float. In fact, after a few rolls of tape and several coats of blue and gray paint, that group ended up winning the entire thing. But that’s kind of a microcosm for what Frosh Camp and the University of Memphis do — give students the tools and the opportunity to succeed.
The idea of trading in a lazy summer day for a night of studying polynomials probably wouldn’t appeal to many 17-year-olds. But those kids haven’t been to the University of Memphis’ Frosh Camp.
Incoming U of M freshman Angel Shah had dreaded the end of her summer, but she had a change of heart while riding home from Frosh Camp in her uncle’s car.
“As soon as I got home, I started packing for school,” says Shah, a native of Pigeon Forge, Tenn. “I really wasn’t looking forward to moving away from home, but after Frosh Camp, I couldn’t wait to get to campus.”
Shah was originally hesitant about attending the four-day camp. She wasn’t surewhat to expect and had already received an enormous amount of information from New Student Orientation.
“Honestly, I thought it was going to be more orientation,” says Shah. “Frosh Camp is much more of a bonding experience, though. At orientation, you’re going to lectures. You’re not really talking to your peers. At Frosh Camp, you’re with your peers. You’re with other students that can give you advice.”
She really appreciated hearing about college life from a student’s perspective. Shah says it’s helped ease her move to the University.
“It’s really given me an advantage,” says Shah. “With Frosh
Camp, you’re not lost. You know what to do when you get to the University.”
Frosh Camp also gives incoming freshmen the opportunity to meet and connect with their future classmates. Whether through the mixers, outdoor activities or just hanging out, the students are constantly introduced to new faces.
“I met so many new people,” says Shah. “The people I met at camp are some of my best friends on campus. It was such a positive experience. Frosh Camp went above and beyond all of my expectations.”
And Frosh Camp always has a surprise or two in store.
“The food is really good, too,” says Shah. “I brought so many snacks from home, but I barely touched any of them. I ate everything in the cafeteria.”
It’s becoming commonplace for students to include Frosh Camp as one of the highlights of their University of Memphis experience, and Shah is no different.
“Frosh Camp is the best experience before you get to college,” says Shah. “I had so many memories packed into just a few days. I know I’ll always remember this time.” — by J.D. Wilson
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