“Life here is busy and challenging, but also very fun; it’s going to be a good year.”
What is it really like to be a new student at Thacher? To give you a better idea, we talked to a bunch of our freshmen and asked them to share their experiences. In the process, we discovered that there are some fairly predictable stages and themes. Some of them, like the sheer excitement of anticipation, take place beyond Thacher’s gates, but most of them are the result of a thoughtfully coordinated set of traditions and programs that, in our experience, make for an exciting, often challenging, but ultimately very rewarding transition to life at Thacher.
But why take our word for it? Below, you’ll find the main elements of the Thacher freshman adventure explained along with some video clips of students filmed at the end of their freshman year sharing their own experiences.
Every Thacher student has that moment. The big envelope, emblazoned with the Thacher logo, arrives in the mail and they know that they’re in for the adventure of a lifetime. Families and students alike are thrilled, and probably more than a bit anxious. They’re imagining all the excitement to come, and all the unknowns. Who will their classmates be? Will they be able to keep up with the coursework? What gear do they need for camping? Will they be the only student who’s never ridden a horse before?
There’s a lot more information coming their way. Dorm heads and senior prefects send welcome letters, excited to meet each new student and introduce them to our amazing community. Families receive camping gear lists, information about textbooks, and advice on furnishing a dorm room. We make sure families have all the nitty-gritty information they need so that they can start thinking about what’s important: the exciting one-of-a-kind community they’re about to join.
New students and their families are in good hands when they arrive on campus in September. Senior students—leaders in our community and the real Thacher experts—serve as first-day guides, introducing our newest Toads to the teachers, riding instructors, and academic advisors who will shape their experiences here at Casa de Piedra.
The first day is also move-in day. Students make their dorm room their own. New classmates make first impressions as they navigate the busy dorm hallways or stop for a rest in the common area. At the barns, freshmen stock up on riding gear, arms piled high with boots, hats, helmets, and tack. On the Upper Field, overlooking the Ojai Valley, the annual All-School Games bring the entire student body together for goofy games and bonding in the early evening.
Golden Trout Camp
Just west of Lone Pine and a few miles past the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead in the Inyo National Forest, you’ll find a cluster of wood cabins and platform tents tucked between the ancient foxtail pines and stark granite outcroppings of the Sierra. This is Golden Trout Camp, Thacher’s High Sierra base camp for the last 50 years and the embarkation point for every freshman’s first Thacher backcountry trip. They’ll find themselves lying in a sleeping bag under the dizzying constellation of stars at night, looking out over immense vistas after a steep climb, catching a marmot trundling along rocky plateaus—this is a landscape they’ll never forget. It’s also where they’ll start to build relationships to last a lifetime. After a few days at GTC, students split off into small groups led by their faculty advisors and senior prefects—people who will be crucial sources of support, wisdom, and friendship throughout the next year. They don their packs, hit the trails, and start the first of many Thacher adventures.
What About the Horse?
Horse hooves on dirt paths, whinnies and sighs on hot afternoons at the barns, the clink of spurs and boots on pavement—these have been part of the Thacher soundscape since the earliest days. Today our herd of 130 horses is a source of inspiration, fostering responsibility, leadership, persistence, selflessness, and adventure. The Horse Program can also be a source of anxiety for soon-to-be-Toads; most have little to no experience with horses before they arrive on campus. Rewind a week to the first day at Thacher and we’ll find students taking a brief riding “test.” It’s part of how our Horse Faculty pair students with just the right horse and place them in a riding group with similarly-skilled classmates. Led by one of our talented horse instructors, students will ride with the same small group throughout the fall trimester. By the time spring rolls around, new riders have become naturals, taking off on their own trail rides and training for barrel races and the silver-dollar pickup in preparation for Big Gymkhana.
The freshman riders will also be up at the barns feeding in the mornings and evenings; mucking their horses’ stalls before class every day; keeping each horse clean and healthy; and maintaining the quality of their tack all year. Oh, and they’ll probably come to consider their horse a trusty companion on adventures near and far.
Starting Classes, Keeping Up with Academics
Classes at Thacher are small (average size: 11 students) and there are often no back rows (think circular Harkness tables instead of single desks in rows). They ask a lot of each student: daily preparation, thoughtful participation, and analytical thinking and intellectual rigor. There’s no coasting in a Thacher classroom. It’s a lot to take in, but students find out quickly that their teachers and advisors go above and beyond to help them successfully navigate this new academic landscape.
Every freshman is enrolled in a language, math, English, history, and arts course. Language and math placements are determined by work done prior to Thacher, but faculty keep a close eye in the first weeks of classes to determine whether students might do better work at a different level of challenge. The arts course features a rotating selection of offerings in drama, ceramics, photography, and painting, giving students the chance to try everything. Students and their advisors regularly touch base to talk about course loads, academic progress, personal goals, and everything in between.
Extra help and one-on-one work are par for the course here: Faculty can be found helping students during office hours, while on duty in the dorms during study hall, at a table in the Dining Hall at lunch or after formal dinner, or in the library during a free period. Library and research skills are built into the freshman curriculum. Students who could benefit from added structure and guidance can participate in the study skills program.
From strange-new-place on day one to home-away-from-home within a few days or weeks, the freshman dorms are a place where potent memories, profound friendships, and personal discoveries will be made over the course of the next year. Every student deals with the transition in their own way; the School works to support them as they each define their own place in the community.
Another thing freshmen will find: They don’t have a roommate. This gives them a private place to reflect and unwind and a quiet, distraction-free study space while they adjust to communal living in other ways. Students navigate shared common spaces, laundry machines, and bathrooms and come together every week for dorm-wide conversations and meetings. By the time they’re sophomores, they’ve developed the skills needed to live harmoniously with a roommate, whom they choose themselves.
In the end, no two dorm communities are alike. They’re defined by the unique mix of students, faculty, and dorm traditions that come together each year. A big part of that is the prefect and prefect group—the cohort of peers assigned to the same prefect with whom many freshmen form their first strong friendships.
Prefects and Dorm Faculty
Senior prefects and dorm faculty are the backbone of dorm life. They’re the leaders, the rule enforcers, the role models, the confidantes, the counselors, and the friends who are invested every day in the well-being of their charges. Students might find themselves recapping their day one-on-one with a prefect before lights out; snacking and goofing off at “munch outs” hosted in a prefect’s dorm room (another Thacher tradition); enjoying a home-cooked meal at an advisor’s house; or discussing an interesting project they’re working on with the faculty member who is on duty during Study Hall one evening.
Getting Involved and Making Friends
Who will decide who you are? Where do you want to go? And how do you want to get there?
These are the tough questions that demand our students’ attention throughout their years in the Thacher community. The journey will engage and challenge them, offer opportunities for real success and profound growth, and take them to places they never imagined. And they won’t be alone.
Twice a week during the fall trimester, freshmen engage in “Thacher 101,” an orientation program that fosters open dialogue about living and learning at the School. They grapple with tough questions about what kind of friend, student, and community member they want to be; how they will define success for themselves; and what challenges they each expect to face along the way. They discuss the integral role of the Honor Code in our community, and how to balance the independence and responsibility it requires. They talk about getting involved in clubs, sustainability projects, community service, drama performances, sports, and other initiatives on campus. And they get to know each other on a deeper level.
While these important conversations with classmates and advisors are happening throughout the school year, freshmen are finding their own way into every aspect of the dynamic Thacher community. Four times a week they’re sitting down to an all-School formal dinner, making new friends and engaging on a personal level with faculty members. Evenings and weekends there are musical performances, film screenings, foursquare tournaments, guest speakers, dances, camping trips, bike rides, and surf sessions to take in.
And down time? Students figure out a way to fill it—waking up before dawn to catch sunrise at Twin Peaks with new friends, grabbing whoever’s around the dorm to play a game of Ultimate down at the Upper Field, working on a personal project in the art studio, or just hanging out with and connecting to classmates-cum-best-friends at the preferred freshman hangout spot, “the grassy knoll” across from the freshmen girls’ dorm.
The Thacher Effect
Ultimately, there’s something every student, no matter the path they choose to take while they’re here, can expect from their freshmen year at Thacher: personal transformation. They’ll accomplish things they could never have imagined, discover new passions and talents, and overcome hurdles that would have seemed insurmountable just months before. And they’ll be considering wider social concerns, thoughtfully navigating how they respond to opportunities created by technology, sustainability, inclusion, and equality through the lens of the 21st century. Let’s call it the “Thacher effect.”