After just coming back from the Graduate Group in Ecology’s (GGE) White Mountain Odyssey for the fourth time in five years, I wanted to write this post as a cathartic decompression of sorts. Also, since this was the last Odyssey I (as well as most people in my 2010 cohort) will help lead, we need replacements!
If you are not part of the GGE and wondering what the heck the Odyssey is, let me give you the cliff notes description: it's a week-long trip through the mountains of eastern California put on by the GGE with the purpose of getting the incoming cohort of graduate students familiarized with several UC Reserves and their fellow GGEers, specifically their new cohort-mates. The trip is done with the new students packed in several (4-6, depending on the size of the incoming cohort) large vans, with two current GGE students responsible for each van. These current GGE students who drive the vans are deemed “TAs,” even though this is nothing like any other TA experience on earth.
If you enjoyed your Odyssey and are thinking about TAing for the first time, be prepared to have twice as much fun as you had on your own Odyssey, despite being twice as tired at the end. Here are five reasons why I think every GGE student, whether you’re a second-year or a seventh-year, should consider TAing the Odyssey.
1) Fosters a strong connection to the new cohort
Just as on your own Odyssey, interpersonal bonds form quickly and deeply between people who were complete strangers only a week before – throwing 30-50 people into a crazy situation together has the tendency to do that. The one year I didn’t attend the full Odyssey (2013) since I’ve been at UC Davis, I felt disconnected from the then first-years (currently second-years) when they returned from the trip. It was a depressing feeling for me. I would meet them at seminars or social gatherings over the following year where we would talk, but the conversations were often brief and superficial – the “where are you from?” “what lab are you in?” “what are you planning to study?” type questions – as conversations in those situations usually are. TAing the Odyssey is one surefire way to get to know the new cohort quickly and well, before their time in Davis even begins.
2) Fosters a strong connection to the older cohorts
The bond between TAs forms well before the Odyssey departs Davis, often months before. This previous year, for example, James and I would spend nights several months in advance planning how to best implement our van plan. The connection you form with you co-van driver will probably be the strongest, but I actually found the connections formed between TAs who are not in the same van to be the most valuable. I have made new friends and become much closer with people I have TAed Odysseys with, especially those driving other vans. At minimum, TAs on the same Odyssey will share jokes and stories that last a lifetime.
3) Fosters a strong connection and appreciation for GGE faculty and administration
Even not including the awesome students, the GGE is such a wonderful community to interact with; it can be easy to forget that if you're too bogged down in your own research. On the trip, we have no fewer than six professors/researchers tagging along for at least part of a day. As a TA, you have unfettered access to these individuals if you so desire. Also, it’s a great way to kick back and have a relaxing conversation with the Student Affairs Officer (SAO; currently Holly Hatfield, formerly Silvia Hillyer), who spends most of her work-year helping you navigate the bureaucracy and administration of a large university with ease. Spending quality time with the SAO on the Odyssey is not only fun, but may make it less uncomfortable the next time you need to ask her for help.
4) TAs just wanna have fun
I find graduate students to be generally plagued with guilt when not working on their research. The Odyssey is a rare opportunity when you can forget about that pesky analysis that hasn’t been working, let loose, and have fun for a week, while still being able to say it’s all in the name of service to your graduate group. Besides to have a great time, the other main reason I have TAed the Odyssey three times is to "pay it forward," to give the incoming students that overwhelmingly positive first experience in the GGE that was once given to me.
5) Getting different experiences revisiting places you rarely see
Since I do marine research, I cherish going on the Odyssey because I get to visit several gorgeous regions in California that I rarely or never visit otherwise. Visiting the White Mountain moonscape is probably what I look forward to the most, but stunning Mono Lake as well as the high peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada are also up there for me. Every year, the flora and fauna you get to see is a bit different, as is the weather. On White Mountain Peak for example, I’ve seen a blustery snowstorm (in 2011) and a day warm and calm enough to wear t-shirts and play cards at the summit (in 2014). Moreover, since the group changes, this gives visiting each location a unique vibe every year.
1) “I’m just not that social or high-energy”
This is the most common excuse I hear from people who have considered TAing the Odyssey, but ultimately decide against it. The idea that only the most social, high-energy GGE students should TA the Odyssey is misguided. The trip actively needs more mellow TAs to balance out the consistently high-energy ones. The low key first-years may even seek out the mellower TAs as a refuge. The mix of hyper-social and more reticent TAs is crucial for maintaining balance on the Odyssey.
2) “I can’t take time off during the Odyssey”
This reason I unfortunately cannot dispute. Some of us have field and/or lab work that is phenologically-constrained and are therefore unable to take any time off in the late summer/early fall. For those people, I am truly sorry, because you are missing out on a wonderful experience. Luckily, for most of us, we can take the time off (5 work days), the question is: will we?
Conclusion: YOU should volunteer to TA the White Mountain Odyssey!
Matthew Savoca holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Davis. His research interests include sensory behavioral ecology, marine conservation biology, and seabird ecology.