Three women in warm clothes stand next to each other.
Cathryn Coffey and Emily Csukardi with Discovery Advising, a unit of University Academic Advising, and Steph Vennetti, director of the Wilder School Academic Advising, led the Discovery Camp retreat. (Contributed photo)

Discovery Camp establishes bonds – and refines visions – for VCU students who have yet to declare majors

University Academic Advising and RecWell join forces for outdoor weekend retreat at Rice Rivers Center for a dozen undergraduates.

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For a dozen Virginia Commonwealth University students who have not yet declared majors, a recent weekend retreat provided a focused way to learn about themselves, hone their academic vision and make friends.

During a weekend in April, the Discovery Camp overnight retreat at the VCU Rice Rivers Center brought together 12 undeclared majors for recreational activities led by the Outdoor Adventure Program, which is part of VCU Recreation and Well-Being. The two days were filled with interactive sessions to clarify students’ ideas about themselves, as well as reflect on their interests and strengths to help determine the next steps in their academic journey and beyond.

“The classes and the programs that we did over that weekend were very beneficial because it helped me realize what I’m passionate about and what my values are,” said rising junior Cameron Somers, who will spend the summer at home in Norfolk while considering her academic interests, which lean toward psychology and education.

This is the second year that Emily Csukardi and Cathryn Coffey – both with Discovery Advising, a unit of University Academic Advising, and Steph Vennetti, director of the Wilder School Academic Advising  – took a group of undeclared students to the rural Rice Rivers Center, located along the James River about 45 minutes southeast of VCU’s downtown Richmond campus. At no cost to the students, the Discovery Camp retreat was initially paid for by a VCU innovation grant to specifically help undeclared students also feel more connected and supported on campus.

Two people in a canoe paddle down a stream.
Activities such as canoeing, hiking, making s’mores around a campfire and late-night games helped students form a bond in a natural setting. (Contributed photo)

We wanted to do something where students would get some structured time in high-impact sessions from different campus partners focused on self-exploration,” Csukardi said. “That ranged from a session where they cut and pasted magazine clippings to make a vision board of what their future looks like, to another session about exploring the hero’s journey and how that relates to their own overcoming obstacles and finding out their resilience story.”

Coffey said the sessions helped students build personal awareness and vision.

“It is learning more about yourself and how to be confident that you can make the right decisions for yourself, and that majors don’t equal career,” she said, adding that a goal of Discovery Camp is “to take the pressure off of feeling like, there’s only one purpose or one passion and you have to pick the right major.”

Fun sessions like canoeing, hiking, making s’mores around a campfire and late-night games leaned into the natural setting and helped the students form a bond.

“I felt I connected socially with all the peers that were there,” said Somers, who welcomed the weekend reprieve from stressful schoolwork. “I just I love the connections I made with everybody. I feel like everybody became very close, very quick.”

Importantly, meeting other VCU students who aren’t yet sure which major to choose helped Somers feel that she’s not alone.

Back in Richmond, Csukardi and Coffey brought the students together socially to continue the Discovery Camp camaraderie, and for one-on-one sessions to focus on their next academic steps.

The advisors say the students are cheering each other on. When they see that one friend has declared a major, it inspires the others. The support network helps them formulate decisions and even try out majors they’ve been thinking about, knowing that their advisors are still there for them if reconsideration is necessary.

The numbers show Discovery Camp’s success with 50% of students who attended declaring a major and nearly all students scheduling an advising appointment within the first month after the session.