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First Ascent Positions Students for Success

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Connor Mokrzycki


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Students participating in a 4D Session at the University of Denver's James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus

Surrounded by the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, the University of Denver’s James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus provides students the perfect backdrop for discovering their potential and exploring new landscapes.  

Over the course of fall quarter, members of the Class of 2026 have been taking advantage of First Ascent trips to the mountain campus, where 4Discoveries Leaders have led more than 100 students into the northern Colorado wilderness each weekend.

“The First Ascent program provides a foundation through outdoor programming and the 4D Experience for our students to explore, learn and reflect on how to connect to each other, connect to staff, and start to connect the dots of what they are learning about themselves, and how they can apply that to where they want to go with their life and career,” says Stu Halsall, associate vice chancellor, James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus, wellness and recreation.

For many of the students, the mountain campus offers the perfect weekend counterpart to the weekday classroom. “It’s awesome,” says first-year student Avery Briant, “because sometimes you just kind of get sucked into the [University Park] campus, and the mountain campus provides an opportunity to go somewhere new, meet new people and try new things.”

Students sit by Cliff Lake at the University of Denver's James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus

Throughout their First Ascent, students can test themselves by scaling cliffs, meandering down endless trails through the 720-acre campus, challenging new friends to a game of cornhole, and making s’mores around a communal campfire—a requisite for any memorable adventure outdoors.

With nearly endless options, students are given ample time to explore the campus and choose which activities they want to pursue—many of which they have never tried before.

On one recent First Ascent weekend, students ventured to the aptly named Cliff Lake, where they split into groups of three before belaying each other up and down the rocks. Meanwhile, at the challenge course, a handful of students crawled, climbed and shimmied across ropes, planks and wires suspended high in the air, with partners holding their safety lines from below. Elsewhere, packs of students—some on guided hikes, others simply exploring—strolled up and down the campus’ countless dirt trails. And at a nearby lush meadow, surrounded by student and staff cabins, students indulged in impromptu football games and spike ball tournaments.

Not all of the offerings capitalized on the great outdoors. Indoors, students enjoyed archery, a climbing wall, arts and crafts, and movie nights.  

Student on a high ropes course at the University of Denver's James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus

And for students needing time to finish homework or a class project, the dining hall offered a quiet room with inspiring views and a distraction-free space to write, read and think.

While lacking traditional classroom spaces, the mountain campus supports DU students’ academic pursuits. “Being in the mountains definitely helps,” says first-year philosophy, sociology and mathematics major Alex Rushinsky. “With philosophy, it lets you find yourself and what you want to be, and for the math major, it’s a mental health break.”

A key component of every First Ascent weekend is a 4D session, where students take time to reflect on their experiences, personal and professional goals, and what they want out of their time at DU.

After a weekend of building connections, reflecting and discovering their pathway to academic and professional success, students are better prepared to optimize their education.

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