Challenged by a Camp Career? Go For It!

by Marina Lukanina

"Every person, all the events of your life, are there because you have drawn them there. What you choose to do with them is up to yo​u."
— Illusions, The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach

This wonderful quote could be applied to my life. As a native of Moscow, Russia, I would not ever have dreamed that someday I would be studying for my master's degree as a Fulbright Scholar in Chicago, attending the International Camping Congress in Mexico City, and more importantly, progressing step-by-step toward my ultimate goal of working in the camp field.

Surprisingly, one of the worst memories of my childhood was when I was sent to a summer camp at the age of seven. If someone had told me then that a career in camp management would be something I would pursue so persistently, I would not have believed them.

My second camp-related memory dates back to 1990 when I was ten years old. At that time, I learned about a student exchange program called Camp Counselors USA (CCUSA) when my sister was a participant. I have kept her letters from Texas and like to re-read them occasionally. I was most impressed by one line: "Marina, study English. May you get to see and experience as much as I did." That line was carved into my memory so deeply that I began looking forward to the time when I could take part in this program and become a member that special community known as camp.

When I look back upon my life I can easily trace the process of transformation from the age of eighteen. 1999 was the year when I first participated in the CCUSA program and came to this country along with thirteen hundred other participants to work in my first American camp. The dream of a ten-year-old girl came true.

Interacting With Different Cultures

Participation in CCUSA was a major step in my camp career. For four summers I worked at Med-O-Lark Camp in Maine. Working at this camp gave me a great opportunity to interact with people from all over the world. It made me realize that international exchange programs in such an environment such as a camp are the best means to promote mutual understanding and respect among nations. They provide excellent opportunities for children and adults to discover other cultures and rediscover their own.

If we are lucky, people we meet on our road through life usually enrich and sharpen it in a better way. I consider myself to be an extremely fortunate person as all through my life I have been influcenced by special people. My personal and professional development were enriched by working under the supervision of my camp director, Jay Stager. I consider him to be the most influential person in my life as he showed me the ideal example of an achiever and a goal-oriented person. His great example of a successful businessman and an outstanding camp director with a special talent of working with children made me think about working professionally in the field of camp and developing my own international arts camp someday.

Applying Camp Principles

In the meantime, my exchange summers were over before I even realized. I graduated from the university in Moscow receiving my undergraduate degree in theater management and ended up getting a job which had nothing to do either with camp or with theater. However, in every one of my non-camp related jobs, I tried to find elements that would benefit me as a future camp director. My work has always been concentrated in human resources management — a key area for any camp director. I tried to digest and absorb as much information and as many skills as possible to form a solid platform for hiring and developing my own camp staff someday. One of my key findings was that we should never stop learning; we never "outgrow learning instruments."

In every place I have worked, I have also tried to apply some of my camp experiences. Once I suggested the idea of a candle ceremony from Camp Med-O-Lark as a closing for one of the corporate team-building events at my work, and it was a huge success. It brought me to an understanding that utilizing the best practices and ideas from various fields and making the necessary business contacts will eventually benefit me as a future camp director.

I have always been open and alert to any possible ways of being involved within the camp community in Russia, even on a volunteer basis. It is often said that opportunities do not tend to fall in our laps. It is necessary to go out and get them. My first major guide into the field was the CCUSA Country Director for Russia, Valery Kostin. Thanks to him I have met many interesting camp people.

Pivotal Learning Events

Applying for a Fulbright scholarship and coming to Columbia College Chicago to study youth arts development was another step toward my goal of entering the camp profession. Recently, I was able to attend two events that were extremely enriching and motivating. Both events were completely different, but both of them served as an additional affirmation for me that I am on the right path, associating with camp professionals. These events were the International Camping Congress in Mexico City (organized by International Camping Fellowship, hosted by Mexican Camping Association) in October, 2005, and the Student Camp Leadership Academy, a pilot program offered by American Camp Association (ACA) in Illinois in November, 2005. I was the only participant who was able to attend both events.

International Camping Congress
It is hard to think of a better place for an International Camping Congress (ICC) than Mexico — a country with a rich culture, wonderful people, and a fascinating environment. I don't feel able to judge this Congress objectively as it was the first International Congress that I have attended. Yet I truly believe that the ICC was especially enriching for young professionals who are only beginning their first steps in a camp management career. It was an excellent opportunity to meet and communicate with camp gurus from around the world as well as the enthusiastic Mexican counselors. Visiting Mexican camps and talking to Mexican camp directors was an invaluable experience.

It seems that we do not know enough about camps in other countries. It was interesting that not many Mexicans were aware that there are children's camps in their own country. While attending the Congress I stayed with one Mexican family. Every evening after the Congress we had long conversations. At the end of my stay they told me that they had learned so many things during the week about the camp movement and Mexican camps in particular. The more we foster and promote international exchange of different ideas and practices, the better our camps will be.

During the closing ceremony of the ICC, Michael Pearse led the song We Can Make A Difference, written by his father, Jack Pearse. Had this song been sung in any other location except the camp community, it would have sounded shallow. However, at that particular place and time, I am sure that all the ICC delegates felt complete confidence in those words. The need to attract more young people to become members of the International Camping Fellowship and attend the Congresses is obvious. Particular attention should be paid to the younger generation who will follow today's camp specialists. Nourishing and developing future staff is one of the most important issues in any industry, and the camp industry is extraordinary in needing people with special dedication.

Student Camp Leadership Academy
When I heard about an opportunity to participate in the Student Camp Leadership Academy (SCLA), I was very excited. Something I had never heard of before — a Camp Academy! The SCLA event was organized as a series of workshops in which the leadership role was gradually transferred from camp directors and ACA staff to the participants. ACA staff and camp directors shared with us their visions of the current camp industry and the best ways for us to approach it on a professional level. We learned about many aspects of the role of ACA in the camp industry, the process of accreditation and its importance, as well professional development opportunities such as the Basic Camp Director Course and New Director Orientation. The door opened for the participants into professional camp education.

I believe that the SCLA definitely outgrew its own goals in one weekend. The event was especially valuable in terms of introducing young people who are only beginning their camp career paths to all the aspects of this profession. The greatest outcome of the event for me was networking with camp professionals, ACA staff and camp directors as well as my peers who are interested in the same career as I am. We were able to share our experiences and discuss what we see as our next steps in the field. I believe that one of the main concepts that I had previously missed was seeing camp not only as a "summer great escape" but as an actual business with its difficulties and challenges. Understanding that now only makes me even more motivated to gain greater knowledge and expand my experiences as much as possible.

Peg Smith, chief executive officer of ACA, was with us during that weekend and raised many important topics such as current trends in the camping industry, the need to establish relationships between the camp and campers' parents, the necessity of attracting and maintaining diverse communities in camps, and the idea of networking with schools instead of competing with them.

One of the strong suggestions conveyed to us was that we should not work at the same camp year after year unless we learn completely new things. Most of the participants were understandably reluctant to accept this idea. Now I am ready to move on and to work in a different camp, but when I remember coming to the U.S. under CCUSA, it did not occur to me to change camps. It would have almost seemed like a betrayal. Med-O-Lark defined my long-term objective of working in camping and eventually operating my own camp someday. To accomplish this challenging goal, I need to study further and work in different kinds of camps to be able to apply what I have learned to create one more special community — a new camp.

There will never be a perfect academic program for camp management. As young professionals, we should take the initiative to find a way to tailor a program which will best meet our needs and interests. We have to take from our academic studies as much as possible and yet be always openly and actively pursuing practical experiences "out there in the woods" where there is a completely different perception of life, where people can be themselves and try on new roles that they probably would not dare to try in their everyday lives.

Pursuing a camping career is challenging yet extremely interesting and rewarding, so difficulties should be viewed as opportunities, possible failures as the way to successes. And, most importantly, we should always remember "You are never given a wish without being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however."

Reference
Bambera, T.C. (1992). Gorilla, My Love. Vintage Books U.S.A.

Marina Lukanina participated in Camp Counselors USA (CCUSA) for four summers 1999-2002, working at Med-O-Lark Camp, Maine. She graduated from Moscow Chekhov Art School-Studio (University) with an undergraduate degree in theater management. Lukanina received a Fulbright scholarship and is currently working toward an MA in arts management with a concentration in arts in youth and community development at the Columbia College Chicago.

Originally published in the 2006 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.