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  • Harrison Wilmot

“If safety was #1, we wouldn’t go on this trip”: Expo coleaders demand risk-taking to see growth

Coleader Justin Guo (‘23) has never been on the infamous expo trip and now is a leader of it. Above, he practices tying a knot, a skill essential to survival.

Stevenson’s expo is an invitation into the unknown. A centerpiece of marketing for prospective students, this 10-day backpacking trip for sophomores stirs anxiety and promises thrills and a profound camaraderie. As the hiking groups cope with unexpected challenges out in the field, every decision may produce a twist that shifts the trajectory of emotions or launches students on a roller coaster of group dynamics. And yet, picture this: Stevenson seniors sought the opportunity to be a coleader on this year’s expedition. As sophomores, they missed out on the chance to participate as the pandemic struck. As juniors, they resorted to a scaled-back Joshua Tree expedition that failed to meet expectations. Now, they are being tasked with leading a trip in which they themselves have never been direct participants. Stress levels have risen.

“I’m excited because there’s a lot more unknowns. I have never been on a trip to this extent so everything is new,” says senior coleader Vikram Puar. Grouped with fifteen other junior and senior coleaders, VIkram underwent a prep plan spanning three-and-a-half months from December to mid March. Six adult leaders instruct the student leaders in “hard” and “soft” skills—and the difference between the two. “Hard” skills as coleader Phoebe Zeidberg relates, are physical skills such as how to tie a knot, rig a tarp shelter, or start a stove; “soft” skills are emotional practices such as conflict management and sensitivity to others’ emotions.

Night or day, coleaders like Ashley Bishop (‘24) and Phoebe Zeidberg (‘24) rely on each other for success. Without a tight bond, a knot fails to maintain its shape and an expo group struggles to endure for ten days.

Senior coleader Justin Guo shares az common sense of trepidation: “I’m definitely really excited, but I think if I had that previous experience, I’d be a lot more comfortable. But there’s an element of surprise that comes with that.” Out of the sixteen coleaders, ten are seniors and six are juniors. Pandemic cancellations and compromises resulted in a lack of students with typical expo experience. There is one exception: Abby Yamashita. Last year, she was the only junior coleader on the entire trip. She alone managed to persuade expo leaders to let hert into the system. As a coleader again this year, she guides the naïve senior and budding junior leaders who will be unusually reliant on her experience and expertise: “Last year, my experience was different because I was the only junior and everyone treated me like the baby, so it took a lot longer to get integrated into the culture. And this year, I am the culture. I am the only coleader that’s returned and the only one that knows the ways of how we do things and how we prep. So Mr. McCormick has a lot riding on my shoulders and my leadership to make sure the culture of expo stays the same.”

Yamashita explains why she wanted to sign up to be a leader for the second year in a row: “All the friends I gained from last year made me crave that experience again. There’s really nothing like it. You put your phone away, hike, and your body is in so much pain but it doesn’t even matter because you don’t remember when it’s over. It’s such an empowering experience.”

Sophie Sparano, a junior coleader and participant in expo last year, justifies the long prep time for the trip: “It’s wholly necessary to go through these steps and take our time spending many months preparing for a backpacking trip with 80 sophomores.” She chose to be a leader this year because of something she discovered in herself last year: “Last year, I was very focused, determined, and didn’t show a lot of emotion. I chose to be a little more reserved, mostly because I felt like I needed to be so I could be strong for the other kids in my group. But afterwards, I felt this catharsis that had been bottled up this whole trip.” As she was making the decision to be a coleader this year, she says, “I wanted to be able to reflect on the trip [from last year], be a leader, and be able to both help others and stay strong for them, but also reflect and internalize this experience for myself.”

Zeidberg says, “I think the kids on expo don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into, and I think that can be a good thing — to push your body to its limit when you’re working with very little. If you haven’t been training for a long time and then you show up first day, you’re body will not be ready for that and so that’s when it turns into a mental game.” Therefore, she believes, “it is important that the coleaders do their extra preparation to compensate for the sophomore’s lack of preparation.”
Senior coleader Abby Yamashita poses with her finished fly

Junior coleader Ashley Bishop reflects on what she found in the woods: “I had a really good expo experience [sophomore year]. I enjoyed getting a break from life and heading out into the woods. And I also had really good coleaders, people who taught me about what it means to survive in nature. I want to be that for other people because my colead

ers were such a big part of my expo experience.” Similarly, senior coleader Siena Barsotti says, “In my life, I’ve done a lot of backpacking and outdoors stuff, so why not share that?” What does she hope to accomplish and teach the younger students? “Working with people that are younger than me, connecting people to nature, and being able to also enjoy myself while taking on a leadership role.”

One of the fundamental elements of the coleader prep experience is the coleader-only expo trip. Before the real one in March, coleaders go on two mock trips that allow the adult leaders to observe the students, see the best pairings, and test their knowledge of everything they’ve learned thus far. “Have you ever been in a group project where everyone’s pulling their weight and you’re like yes?! That’s what it [a coleader expo mock trip] is like, but it’s camping and it is fun!” Zeidberg exclaims.

Yamashita says that these trips and the months of planning are vital to the overall experience because “With your sophomores, you can just not speak to them if you really don’t like them, but with your coleaders, if you don’t get along with them, then you’re done for.” Bishop believes the relationships the coleaders build with the sophomores are more valuable long-term: “Obviously my relationship with the coleaders is going to be stronger in the beginning…but at the end of the day, I’m really there for the sophomores. I want to keep that mentor-mentee relationship going.”

At the end of the day, this trip is a step into the unknown and involves an element of risk, yet the coleaders and especially Zeidberg believe this is welcome: “If safety were #1, we wouldn’t go on this trip.” She summarizes the trip’s goals, “First is the pursuit of knowledge, second is fun, and third is safety.” Puar says the point is sharing and teaching: “I don’t think the joy will be in experiencing the outdoors. The joy will be leading and getting to see the sophomores figure it out on their own. That’s why I signed up. Because I can backpack anytime.” Sparano reveals that nothing is perfect and coleaders alike—whether new to the “culture” or not—will face certain challenges: “The challenge I will face is giving these kids the encouragement they need to be able to get up every day at 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. and hike 6-10 miles. I will have to keep up team morale and at the same time, my own morale because it’s going to be stressful, but it’s also going to be very fun.” Nevertheless, she provides a tip for her former sophomore self and all sophomores anticipating their trip this year: “You’re going to feel underprepared. You’re going to feel like you can’t do it. But realistically, it’s not that maybe you can’t, but you’re going to have to do it. Don’t stress yourself out and don’t overprepare. Be confident. Be yourself. And put everything on the table.” And in that, the coleaders are leading by examplee.

Senior coleader Evie Moore, pictured right, stabilizes a hiking pole as she helps out her fellow coleaders finish a fly. As a part of a three-and-a-half-month planning curriculum, learning “hard” skills such as this is one of the first steps to master the role as a leader.


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