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A Retreat from the Ordinary

The Upper School’s annual grade-level retreats are a cherished tradition at USM. They are a chance for students to bond with each other and grow as individuals—off campus and away from the pressures of school life.

There was palpable excitement in the air as USM seniors boarded buses on the morning of Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. They were headed to Camp Hometown Heroes in Grafton, Wisconsin, for the annual senior class retreat. Even though it was a scaled-back event compared to previous (pre-COVID) senior retreats, the students were thrilled for the chance to bond as a class, and excited to spend some time together off campus.

All Upper School students spend two days at the beginning of every school year participating in a class retreat. Each retreat is centered around a theme, which is built upon throughout the school year. Freshmen focus on community building; sophomores on service; juniors on leadership; and seniors on moving up. The retreats themselves vary. Sophomores, for example, choose from one of several service projects to participate in during their retreat, while juniors work to identify and hone their leadership styles through small-group activities. But each retreat is designed to give students a common experience—something on which they can connect and build over the course of the school year.

A student climbs a log on a high ropes course during an Upper School retreat.

Asher Bosworth '22 participated in a high-ropes course during the senior retreat where students faced challenges and participated in activities that pushed them outside their comfort zones.


The retreats require weeks of planning, including managing logistics, coordinating locations and activities, and communicating with students and parents. In a pandemic year, the process is even more complicated. “The retreats are a lot of work for a lot of people,” said Jean Plum, Upper School Spanish teacher and freshman class dean. “We’re always asking ourselves whether they are valuable for students and teachers. And the short answer is, yes, they are.”

Being off-campus makes the retreats more complicated to plan and execute, but it adds to the students’ experience. “It’s valuable for our faculty to see these kids outside of the classroom,” said Sue Baker, Upper School physical education/health teacher and sophomore class dean, “and for the kids to see their teachers in a non-school setting. Whether we’re doing service activities or team-building activities, it’s just great to be part of group working towards a common goal that has nothing to do with academics.”


Many thanks to the Upper School faculty members and class deans Jean Plum (9th grade), Sue Baker (10th grade), Jenny Mielke (11th grade), and Sarah Titus ’00 (12th grade), as well as the advisors and Charlie Housiaux ’02, dean of students, who created and managed the retreats.

Visit www.usm.org/retreats for video recaps of all four Upper School retreats.

Learn about the retreats from the students who experienced them first-hand.

Freshman Retreat

A student helps clean a river while using a net to collect trash.

Students in 9th grade, like River Kilsdonk '25, participated in a river clean-up during their retreat.

"During the retreat, I learned to rely on others to—quite literally—act as my eyes when I was blindfolded and tasked with finding objects by listening to my teammates’ voices. This was one of my favorite activities, as I learned a lot about the students in my advising group and was able to see the world from a new perspective. After the retreat, I found that I felt a much stronger sense of community with them; I knew more about each individual, and we were able to solve problems as a group much more efficiently."
– Anastasia Finley '25

Sophomore Retreat

A student packages donated food at a food pantry.

To highlight their focus on service, sophomores like Justin Altman '24 packages non-perishable food for Milwaukee's Hunger Task Force during part of their retreat.

"For the sophomore retreat, the focus was on service and included time for us to do some volunteer work. We could choose from three organizations, and I picked the Urban Ecology Center. It was fun being outside and helping to clear invasive plant species. Overall I think the retreat was a great way to get to know my classmates better, especially because we didn’t have a freshman retreat last year due to COVID-19."
– Isabel Werner '24

Junior Retreat

A group of students pose for a photo downtown while on their class retreat.

During the junior class retreat, students honed their leadership skills during a scavenger hunt in Milwaukee's Third Ward.

"No one really knew what to expect during our junior retreat, but everyone was excited and relieved to have a fun break from academics and an opportunity to bond with our peers. We participated in various challenges and activities having to do with the theme of leadership, but perhaps the most important aspect was the level of bonding we experienced as a grade and within our advising groups. It was truly a fun opportunity to get to know our fellow advisees in a different environment."
– Lucy Flack '23 and Zindzi Frederick '23

Senior Retreat

Students pose for a photo in the air during a high-ropes retreat.

Activities during the senior retreat included a high-ropes course to challenge students and build confidence. Pictured are Donn Rhys Mondano '22 (left) and Ali Mortada '22

"The senior retreat is something we have been looking forward to since we first heard about it as 9th graders. We learned to step outside of our comfort zone while supporting one another, and we created an environment where everyone felt comfortable and safe to share, which I find very admirable. Overall, we all had a very gratifying time on our retreat. We pushed through fear and discomfort and bonded over our past while creating memories that we will fondly look back on."
– Anna Staples '22

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