In the fall of 2019, incoming freshman Sam Painter had his heart set on going to art school in New York City, near his hometown of Stony Brook, New York. He said it took one November visit to OU's campus to set those dreams aside and follow his new aspiration to attend OU.
Painter said he immediately fell in love with OU's campus and, despite being a prospective student, he already felt at home. He said he knew he would follow in the footsteps of his parents by becoming a Sooner.
After committing to OU, Sam Painter said his main goal became making connections. Living in New York, he would not get to know people unless he chose to put himself out there. OU's Camp Crimson was this opportunity.
Although he met people through social media, Painter said he was most excited to meet people in person and to get a better feel for his new home.
Painter's hopes of an in-person experience, however, came to a grinding halt — as did the hopes of many — upon the emergence of COVID-19.
Camp Crimson organizers announced earlier this month — after about two decades of an in-person camp — the camp will be held in a virtual setting.
Within the past few months, the plans of OU's incoming freshman have been transformed by the coronavirus. With most of their senior year cut short and the cancellation of in-person graduations, proms and celebrations, the lack of an in-person orientation camp is yet another thing they are doing without.
Unique times, however, have allowed for Camp Crimson’s staff to generate a rare, online experience for incoming freshmen — one that OU’s Assistant Director of Orientation and Transfer Programs Bridgitte Castorino said could connect more students than in-person camp has in the past.
“Everyone gets to build their own journey in this year of Camp Crimson, which is why I think it is so cool,” Castorino said. “It’s (going to be) such a good resource to have for both connections and information.”
Currently, Camp Crimson will be held from June 22 to Aug. 7 on Canvas — providing campers with access to themed modules highlighting topics like academics, campus involvement and getting to know OU. Campers will meet with small groups of 20–30 people via Zoom and can participate in a multitude of virtual activities.
Castorino said although the goals of Camp Crimson have changed with this transition, the camp’s mission is far from changing.
“We still desire to … provide students with access to resources and people that allow them to make the connections (and) feel more comfortable coming to school in the fall,” Castorino said. “I think what has changed in my goals is how we're able — with the Canvas platform — to provide students (with) more information and more useful … resources.”
Castorino said Camp Crimson has played a significant role in her career, helping to plan the in-person camp for the past four years. Although some might see the organization of camp in a virtual setting as a difficult process, Castorino said it is different rather than challenging.
“I think this has allowed me to take a step back and truly focus on what we have been missing (and) who has not been able to be a part of our audience … that we can provide more access to,” Castorino said. “I think, if anything, yes it's challenged me to think more, but I've … truly enjoyed it. … It has been an opportunity for us to grow and learn.”
Learning together has been a key theme in current preparations for camp, as Castorino is required to collaborate with a body of Camp Crimson staffers virtually. Gracie Johnson, the head of logistics on Camp Crimson’s operations staff, said she has seen staffers rally together amid the trials of the pandemic.
“We all have gone through our own different things as far as adjusting to the new way our lives look in general, but there haven't really been any difficulties with camp,” Johnson, a civil engineering junior, said. “I feel like everyone — now more than ever — is really rallying together and being open, available and … more flexible. … We formed as a team even more than I thought that we would have.”
Planning for camp has become a day-by-day process as Castorino said organizers can never guarantee what will happen in these unique times. In response, Castorino said she has been empowered by students on staff as they meet challenges with creative ideas and solutions.
“I think some of our coolest ideas coming out of this have been straight from students, and that to me means the world just because I trust my staff so much … (and) I know their input is so valuable,” Castorino said. “Obviously, if something happened during camp in the past … (we would) create a solution … but I think now, creativity is required as we build this one day at a time.”
On operations staff, Johnson’s job is to engage with students via social media and promote virtual camp. She said, as she has worked to connect with students, Castorino has passionately emphasized the importance of creativity and connections.
“I've learned from her … how to think of every student and every person that should be (and) will be touched by camp,” Johnson said. “Just having them in mind first … (and) approaching camp as a safe place for people to come and be themselves … is really what we've all latched on to because that's what we've felt through camp and that's why I applied to be on staff.”
Although Castorino said preparations for virtual camp have failed to present immense challenges, some incoming OU freshmen are still voicing concerns regarding the effectiveness of virtual Camp Crimson.
Incoming political science freshman Katie Kernal has lived in Norman her whole life and said, before the pandemic, she was excited for the experiences that come with going to OU, such as living in the dorms, OU football games and Camp Crimson.
Amid the coronavirus, Kernal said she understands how having camp in person is impossible, but it's unfortunate how things have changed.
“I just remember seeing pictures last year of people hanging out with their groups and doing activities … so it is a bummer that we're not going to get to do that,” Kernal said. “Also, I think everyone is a little burnt out from meeting over Zoom and … FaceTime (as) it's not quite the same as getting to be in the same room as someone.”
Small group leader Reety Erwin echoed Kernal’s concerns and said she is slightly nervous for virtual camp because of the awkwardness that comes with talking over Zoom. Despite her nerves, Erwin said she is excited to experience this unique form of camp with her campers.
“I think this is going to be a part of their new norm and they (can choose to) get used to it with someone who is excited to meet … them,” Erwin, a public relations senior, said. “Especially in this new scenario with Zoom — no one has (had) this experience before … so they're never going to be alone.”
Erwin said although it is online, there are still opportunities to make genuine connections in Camp Crimson. The success of camp will all depend on how people embrace the challenges.
“I do think that it comes … down to your attitude about the situation,” Kernal said. “If you want to meet new people, the format of it is less important than the actual trials. … It definitely isn’t ideal … but I think maybe we should all (try and) embrace what it is.”
In preparing her small group leaders for camp, Castorino said her main message has been that it is important to not have too high of expectations — especially considering the newness of this experience. Rather, she said she wants students to focus on the main mission of Camp Crimson — which is connections.
“I tell them they’re going to meet so many different people ... in their small group, so focus on getting to know people's stories and hearing their perspectives,” Castorino said. “Because, at the end of the day, if you leave having connected to 10 people, you have made a difference. Those 10 people are now excited to come to OU … (and) those 10 people know that when they get there, someone is going to be waiting for them.”
For Painter, the events of this summer were not what he had originally planned. His initial eagerness to attend in-person Camp Crimson turned lukewarm amid the transition to online.
“I am so torn, because half the people I have talked to are doing it while the other half are not,” Painter said. “I love meeting people, so I think it would be fun … but I don’t really know if I want to sit in front of a computer (for camp).”
As campers and staffers alike enter this online version of Camp Crimson, Castorino said participants will ultimately get what they put in. The best piece of advice she said she can give is to take advantage of this unique opportunity to meet people and learn more about OU.
“I know starting this new chapter … can be very nerve-wracking and confusing, as you don't know what to expect,” Castorino said. “Although it isn’t the most ideal situation for you to meet new people and to have those connections coming into August … it is very much up to each person individually (and) how much they want to be involved. … I love that (although it’s virtual) you can still go into this and leave with multiple connections you wouldn't have had otherwise.”