Internships and Camp: Staffing Camps and Developing Future Camp Leaders

by Rita Yerkes, Ed.D., and Shannon Downey, M.S.

Camp directors often start planning their staffing needs for the next summer with an analysis of the last summer and list which staff they will invite to return and determine how many new staff that they will have to recruit.

Some camps are fortunate enough to have 40 to 50 percent return of staff; however, others struggle not only to find qualified staff, but also to fill the positions that they need. Strategies include placing advertisements in the local newspaper, word of mouth, and growing their own staff through counselor-in-training programs. In contrast, many older campers and summer staff have no idea that they could pursue a career in organized camping and that this career starts with the seasonal summer camp position.

For most campers and staff, camp is a magical experience and marks an important time in their lives. In fact, if they love camp and the experiences it provides, they come back as long as they are able. Unfortunately, many believe that they must pursue other careers to make a living and leave the camp industry to pursue this goal.

And so, what avenues are open to camp directors in addressing this paradox? How does the camp director fill multiple positions in a short period of time with talented and qualified staff and be ready for the next summer season? At the same time, what is the responsibility of the camp director in recruiting and mentoring the young camp leaders who will lead the camp profession in the future? One solution is to develop practicum and internship partnerships with colleges and universities.

Practical Camp Experiences for Academic Credit

Colleges and universities offer many different types of practicum and internship experiences in different majors for academic credit. Independent studies require a student to look at a particular selected topic. It is short in duration, usually a focused project that requires minimal supervision from the director. Practicum experiences require limited camp director supervision and student time at the camp and include student service projects, documented work hours, and reflection papers. Internships are career focused, full-time (forty hours per week or more) for an academic semester, and require college/university internship coordinator contact, student intern supervision, and mentorship from the camp director and the staff.

Many college majors have national accreditation requirements for internship experiences that detail length, type, and qualifications of the camp director for supervision. Majors may include business administration, elementary and secondary education, human services, physical education, recreation administration, and social work. All of these majors require service hours, practicum experiences, and internships. They also require that students complete a specific number of practical experience hours that include involvement in programming, administration, personnel management, and public relations—beyond the specific camp position that the director is trying to fill.

Undergraduate Practicums and Internships

There are undergraduate and graduate practicums and internships required by certain college programs that award academic credit. An undergraduate practicum and internship will have a leadership and programming focus with the expectation that the student receives a general overview of the administration and other departments at camp. For example, Camp Sea Lab director Tracey Weiss said, "Camp Sea Lab has established an internship partnership with California State University at Monterey Bay (CSUMB). The camp was approached by professor William Head from the Division of Earth Science Systems and Policy. Head was awarded a grant through the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) to fund an internship program. The university boasts an ‘Informal Science Education’ program and Camp Sea Lab was a perfect fit since they specialize in informal science education targeting underserved populations. The university and camp worked together to design an internship program for science majors at CSUMB (T. Weiss, personal communication, July 20, 2006).

At Camp Sea Lab, interns focus on program leadership throughout their internships; however, they are given opportunities to participate in all aspects of the camp including administration, marketing, program development, etc. Camp Sea Lab works with each intern to ensure they are developing a range of organized camping leadership and program skills (T. Weiss, personal communication, July 20, 2006).

Graduate Practicums and Internships

A graduate practicum or internship will have an administrative focus with the goal of becoming familiar with the responsibilities and daily challenges of leading personnel and managing the camp operations. For example, YMCA Rockies director Marty Ferguson offers both undergraduate and graduate paid internship opportunities. The camp will turn any position into an internship opportunity from kitchen staff to leadership positions. Potential interns are asked to send YMCA Rockies their university’s internship guidelines. The camp then reviews them and makes sure they can meet those guidelines before accepting an intern. Interns not only fill camp positions, but also are exposed to many other facets of the camp business such as marketing, administration, and budgeting. Administrative staff work as mentors to interns and do all they can to include interns in as many diverse experiences as they can. Ferguson offers internships because he believes camp is a fantastic place for young people (students) to gain important leadership skills, a greater sense of responsibility, life skills, and confidence. He uses his internship positions to unite the students’ academic world to the real world (M. Ferguson, personal communication, July 21, 2006).

Another example is Camp Manito-wish, which offers both undergraduate and postgraduate paid internships. The camp works with students in recreation programs whether they are outdoor education or parks and recreation. The camp has no formal relationships with any universities, but works to meet the requirements of each intern’s specific university. Drew Richmond, Camp Manito-wish summer program director, defines the internship program as "very student-oriented." He works one-on-one with interns to ensure that the student is exposed to all applicable aspects of the camp. He makes sure that interns see the "behind the scenes" aspects of the camp business. Richmond offers internships in order to inspire personal success and to create a hands-on experience that will enable students to decide on the right career path (D. Richmond, personal communication, July 21, 2006).

The Camp/College and University Partnership

In a camp/college or university partnership, the director must consider options and the supervision requirements of each. The director needs to fill certain positions with skilled and committed counselors and staff. Therefore, camp positions should be analyzed to determine which lend themselves well to a practicum or internship experience for the student. In certain circumstances specialized staff is needed for supervision of the intern. For instance, those seeking National Certification in Therapeutic Recreation must be supervised by a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) on the camp staff. Those seeking Social Work certification must be supervised by a staff person with a Master of Science of Social Work (MSW).

Both Camp Director and Senior Staff Supervise Students

The camp director and the camp senior staff should engage in discussion with the university internship director and students to determine what type of experience and requirements must be addressed during the camp season. Practicum hours usually require that a student time sheet is filled out to document hours worked. Internships require regular work conferences that are career-related and often require a rotation of assignments during the experience. Internships also require career mentorship from the director and staff as student interns are adding to their professional portfolios for a career in organized camping while at camp.

Camp directors or their designee will be required to fill out practicum and internship affiliation agreements with select colleges and universities. These agreements gather information about the camp, program, and qualifications for staff to supervise students before a student can be placed with the camp. Once the camp has been screened, students (with assistance from the camp director and their faculty internship supervisor) can develop internship goals and objectives that result in a finalized contract between the camp, student, and university.

For example, recreation administration program students at the George Williams College of Aurora University begin searching for internships nine months to a year in advance of their final semester. It takes a minimum of four to six months to identify and screen the agencies and agency intern supervisor in advance before a student can be placed. Students are encouraged to start early to find a quality educational placement that will enhance their career.

Successful Camp/College and University/Student Partnership

Tracey Weiss believes that the Camp Sea Lab internship program works to inspire and attract diverse students to the field. Camp Sea Lab invests extra energy and time with interns in providing extensive, direct instruction. However, camp staff believe that this time and energy is unequivocally worth it (T. Weiss, personal communication, July 20, 2006).

Weiss measures the success of the camp’s internship program with four questions:

  1. Is the student still interested in the field at the end of the experience?
  2. Does the student want to pursue this type of work further?
  3. Is the student leaving with a greater sense of confidence?
  4. Has the student developed a new set of skills?

(T. Weiss, personal communication, July 20, 2006)

When asked about the extra work involved in supervising interns, Marty Fergusson commented that he "doesn’t even think about it because it’s worth it." He feels these internship positions are broadening the field and anything he can do to help the field is worth it (M. Ferguson, personal communication, July 21, 2006).

In addition, Drew Richmond, stated that the amount of extra work required on his part varies but that it is always worth it. When asked why, he responded that interns invest more in the job. In addition, anything that he can do to ensure the field is comprised of professionals with a solid set of skills is worth any amount of time. He defines a good experience through interns who develop a solid set of skills, an understanding of responsibility, make good decisions, and have developed a broader understanding of the concept of camp (D. Richmond, personal communication, July 21, 2006).

When Students Ask "Can I Do an Internship at Your Camp?"

During the staff recruiting season or an ACA conference, directors are often asked by students if they can complete their college internship at camp. At this point, many directors are not sure how to respond. Listed below are some suggested steps to be taken before you answer:

  1. Do some soul searching and determine if you want to take on this educational and mentorship role that practicums and internships will require.
  2. Talk to other camp directors that have established internship programs and relationships with colleges and universities.
  3. Visit Web sites for national associations:
    • National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA)
    • Association of Experiential Education (AEE)
    • American Alliance of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD)
  4. Contact colleges and universities in your area and contact the internship coordinators for information and to establish your camp as a practicum or internship site.
  5. Try to locate colleges and universities that have strong education and outdoor leadership and recreation programs.
  6. Develop your own internship program with manuals for distribution.
  7. Become a practicum and internship site.

The Measure of Success

The measure of a successful partnership is that everyone has a role to play, learns from it, and is better for the experience. The camp is bettered through the experience as it can attract committed and talented staff. The colleges and universities are enhanced as they must find excellent placements for their students and keep updated by the field in the process. The students’ experiences are enhanced as they are gaining valuable "hands-on" experience while they complete their degree. The camp director and staff are enhanced as they are learning and helping to create quality programs while mentoring students. The campers are enhanced as they benefit from a wide variety of professionals working together. Finally, the organized camp profession is enhanced by providing future leadership development opportunities in the field.

Practical Camp Experiences for Academic Credit

  • Independent studies requires a selected topic; short in duration; a focused project that requires minimal supervision from the director.
  • Practicum requires limited camp director supervision and student time at camp; includes student service projects, documented work hours, and reflection papers.
  • Internship career focused, full-time (forty hours per week or more); academic semester; requires college/university internship coordinator contact, student intern supervision, and mentorship from the camp director and the staff.

Rita Yerkes, Ed.D., is dean of the School of Experiential Leadership at the George Williams College of Aurora University, Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

Shannon Downey, M.S., holds a master’s degree in outdoor pursuits administration from the George Williams College of Aurora University, Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and graduated in August 2006.

Originally published in the 2006 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.