When was the first time you began to feel comfortable at Colby? For many, it was on Colby Outdoor Orientation Trip (COOT). COOT is a orientation program that takes first-year students all over Maine on various outdoor expeditions ranging from backpacking to fishing to exploring Waterville. It is a memorable experience for first-years and is synonymous with joining Colby’s community.
COOT’s premise is simple. Roughly ten first-years (or cootons) are led by two older students on a three-day, two-night adventure. They do everything together over those days, including games, cooking, and hiking. Post COOT, the groups often stay connected through dinners and group activities.
COOT does not exist to introduce first-years to their best friends but rather serves as a break from orientation and provides them with mentors and a foundational group of people..
“COOT is a valuable resource for the first-year class. Coming in as a first-year, there are 600 something students, all coming from different backgrounds, different places, different personal lived experiences, and then literally every single person in the class has this trip. Having one really unique shared experience is awesome, and provides a lot of value. If for nothing else, when you’re in late September and you’re trying to meet new people, you have something to talk about.” Sam McKeown `24, COOT co-coordinator, said.
COOT is not just about first-years meeting each other, however, but also about introducing them to resources. “The hope is every first-year walks away from a trip with at least one of their leaders being someone that they feel comfortable going to about hard things, which you need in the transition to college, and who can introduce them to resources that they would need for whatever is going on in their life, be that Counseling Services, or the Title IX Office, or just clubs and activities,” McKeown said.
Despite COOT’s importance to Colby’s campus culture, COOT leaders are not paid.
COOT leaders do not have an easy job. Most leave summer jobs and internships to arrive on campus two weeks early. The first week consists of various lectures and trainings that leave the leaders with little free time. The second week prepares leaders for when they will lead their trip.
McKeown described COOT training as “an intense two weeks with a lot of mental energy and stress to prepare to have a group of ten first-years who you are trying to introduce in what is, arguably, the most important and most difficult week of their life thus far.”
As a COOT leader himself, and having stepped into the role of co-coordinator this past year, McKeown knows the effort that it takes to be a leader.
“COOT leaders should get paid because it’s a lot of work. COOT leaders do labor for Colby College and deserve to be compensated for that labor in the same way that CAs do,” he said.
John Bengtson, COOT supervisor, agrees with McKeown.COOT leaders should absolutely get paid! They perform a vital service for the college. They orient students, not only to the campus, but to the culture itself.” he said.
COOT leaders, like Community Advisors and Colby Emergency Response, provide a service to the college. They fill a necessary role and, just like other important, time consuming jobs on campus, deserve to be compensated.
Chloe Shader `24, a first time COOT leader this past year, believes that, given how challenging COOT is, leaders deserve proper compensation. COOT is a very valuable service. It’s a lot of hard work. It makes sense to compensate people for a lot of hard work for something that’s really important for the College.” She said.
Despite the overwhelming belief by COOT leaders and those who work in and with the program believing that they should be paid, there are a few reasons why they are not.
For one, because COOT involves taking students on outdoor trips, Maine State Law comes into play.
“If a student is being paid to lead a trip, then they need to be a registered Maine guide. If they are not being paid, then they work under what is called a Maine trip leader certification that is much easier to obtain,” Bengston said.
It is much harder, more intensive, and more expensive to become a registered Maine guide, which is what would be required of students if they were paid for leading trips. There are ways around this rule, however.
For one thing, the College would not pay hourly wages to students leading COOT trips. Between the two weeks of training and the over 48 hours during the actual trip when the leaders are technically “on duty,” it would be too expensive to pay all leaders hourly.
Ways around the rule include paying leaders for training but not for the actual trip, or a stipend for the two weeks. Regardless, there are ways around the guide law if Colby really wanted to pay their leaders.
Another issue is the topics which are discussed on COOT.
“If COOT leaders were paid, would we be able to talk about the same things? At what point would we be a representative of the College and do we have to say things a specific way?” asked McKeown.
It is no secret that COOT leaders talk openly about their experiences at Colby to their COOTons, especially when it comes to drinking, partying, and hookup culture, so their students know what to expect. How would this change if COOT leaders were paid? COOT leaders are mandatory reporters on COOT (as long as the thing reported occurred during COOT), so, even without Colby paying them, they already have some level of responsibility to the school. The question that remains is what level of discretion would leaders need to have if they were paid employees?
The final issue with paying leaders is the fear that students will apply for money, and not because they are passionate about the program. However, as Nanne Nicholas `23 put it, “It’s still an application process. It’s not like anyone can get it.”
Every COOT leader thus far has applied with no monetary incentive. They will still apply if there is money involved, so the fear of not having enough dedicated leaders should not be a consideration. Even if people apply with money in mind, those who are truly passionate about the program will demonstrate that on their application.
What this debate really comes down to is accessibility.
Julia Cantor `23 shared her perspective. “COOT leaders should get paid because there are a lot of people who cannot afford to take two weeks without pay during the summer, so that limits who can be COOT leaders and it’s really important to have a diverse set of COOT leaders because, all the cootons coming in are coming from very different experiences and the goal is to have people they can relate to.” she said.
Many students cannot be COOT leaders because they cannot afford to lose two weeks of pay.
“It’s really hard to come to campus two plus weeks early and, in the process, give up two weeks of work from the summer. It’s not just that COOT not being paid is bad, but you’re also taking away money that people would have made,” McKeown said.
Nicholas explained how COOT’s accessibility issue is not a new one. “The whole outdoor education community in general, and if you look at COOT specifically, it’s very homogenous. It’s mostly people from upper class families, and white and whatever, and that is because you’re taking two weeks off and you’re not getting paid for those two weeks. It could be a way to combat that issue within the outdoor education community, and COOT as a whole.”
Colby has created COOT as a program to connect students to the College community and Maine as a whole. As Bengtson put it, COOT is “a bridge between whatever community a student is coming from and the Colby community at large.”
COOT is a vital program for first-years and the community as a whole, yet the College is not letting it reach its full potential by preventing a whole group of people from being leaders. It is not just that COOT is hard work and should be paid, but that the College is actively excluding those who are not wealthy enough to take time off from work to come back and be COOT leaders.
COOT is a crucial program, and the College should be doing everything it can to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for first-years, which means diverse leaders with whom COOTons can connect. The College will always be hindering this experience if they do not help the leader pool become more diverse.
McKeown put it most simply. “Lack of diversity leads to an objectively worse set of COOT trips for the first-year class than we could have. Paying COOT leaders allows people who want to be COOT leaders in the first place to access it.”
~ Mairead Levitt `25