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At the Kennedy Mountain Campus, first-year students explore, reflect and learn

At the University of Denver, learning has never been limited to a classroom or laboratory. In fact, students have always considered the Rocky Mountains the perfect place to explore new terrain, to dream about their lives and futures and to learn about themselves.  

With the debut of DU’s 724-acre James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus, located roughly two hours north of the Mile High City, that’s about to intensify. 

The site, says Stu Halsall, associate vice chancellor for the James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus, wellness and recreation, “is one of the venues where key elements of DU’s distinguishing focus—the 4-Dimensional Experience (4D)—are implemented. Students will graduate from DU with confidence, integrity, skills for self-discovery and inclusivity, and a mark of excellence that will help them [succeed] in their lives beyond DU. Using wilderness education and experience as a foundation upon which these skills are introduced, students will build resilience, endurance and compassion that will help them translate their abilities to benefit the public good throughout their lives.” 

During fall quarter 2022, first-year students saw firsthand just how the new campus will color their time at DU. 

The Class of 2026 was the first to participate in specially designed experiences structured to take full advantage of the mountain campus’ many amenities and stunning setting. Dubbed First Ascent, this new yearly tradition offers a weekend packed full of activities and adventures in the northern Colorado wilderness. Each weekend of fall quarter, groups of more than 100 students traveled to the mountain campus accompanied by 4Discoveries orientation leaders. The goal: When students return to Denver, they are better prepared to optimize their education.

During their sojourn at the mountain campus, many students chose to spend time exploring a network of trails spread across the ranging property. For those less comfortable adventuring on their own, guided group hikes offered a chance to enjoy scenic views. 

Lakeside cliffs awaited students eager to learn how to climb, with teams of three belaying each other up and down the rock faces. An outdoor ropes course provided a unique challenge for students as they scaled ladders and ropes and crawled across wires and planks suspended high in the air. For those who preferred keeping their feet on the ground, a meadow tucked between cabins bustled with impromptu football games, Spikeball and cornhole tournaments. Indoors, students tried their hands at archery, dove into arts and crafts or enjoyed movie nights with friends. And if they needed time to work on assignments for class, a quiet room in the dining hall provided a space to read, write and think while enjoying mountain vistas. 

Greg Mahan, the 4D project manager, takes pride in how the setting elevates students’ 4D experience. “During their First Ascent, students participate in a 4D Experience by Design module that centers reflection, connection and discovery. We guide students through a process of identifying the skills, interests and values that are most important to them, enabling them to find intersections and explore how to use these insights as the basis for charting individualized pathways at DU.”

While prepping students for success throughout their time at the University, the mountain campus experience also directly supports their academic pursuits. From networking opportunities and building relationships to finding a secluded spot for contemplation and reflection, students report feeling better prepared for their courses when they return from their First Ascent. 

Shane Siegmund is a first-year student from Yardley, Pennsylvania, who plans to major in business management. He saw his time at the mountain campus as an opportunity to gain experience and connections—while enjoying the great outdoors. “Business is all about relationships. This is the best way to do it, just being out here, meeting people and making friends,” he said during a First Ascent weekend in October. A day into the trip, Siegmund was already excited to take advantage of the mountain campus throughout his time at DU. Briefly pausing from tossing a football around with his friends, he asked, “When can we come back up here?” 

Alex Rushinksy, who is pursuing majors in mathematics, philosophy and sociology, found the mountain campus to be both a welcome break from the stress of fall quarter midterms and a useful environment to reflect and explore. 

“Being in the mountains definitely helps with philosophy. It lets you find yourself and what you want to be,” he said. “And for the math major, it’s a mental health break.”

Hailing from mountainless Carmel, Indiana, Rushinsky said that previous hiking and camping trips paved the way for a passion for high-altitude adventures once he arrived in Colorado. But even for an experienced outdoorsman, the mountain campus offered a chance to try something new. “I did some rock climbing. That I wasn’t expecting,” he said. And for those not as keen on mountain expeditions, Rushinsky recommended taking full advantage of a First Ascent weekend. “When else are you ever going to do this? You’re going to have every other weekend on [the Denver] campus,” Rushinsky said.

Matt Jensen, director of outdoor experience and programs, says the mountain campus is unique in offering students who aren’t avid campers, skiers, climbers or otherwise outdoors-inclined an opportunity to experience nature—without paying for an Airbnb or pitching a tent. “No expensive Ikon or Epic Pass required,” he says. 

Second-year student Kimberly Guevara, a public policy and economics major who works as a 4Discoveries orientation leader, sums up the First Ascent experience this way: It creates “a community that makes you feel safe, heard and seen. These are experiences for everyone!”

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