The Value of Being a Camp Counselor: A Study of the Experiences and Personal Growth of Missouri 4‑H Camp Counselors

by Donald J. Nicholson, M.Ed. and Michelle D. Klem, M.S.

Introduction

Nationally, 4‑H camp programs often utilize the leadership and energy of teenage camp counselors (ages fourteen to eighteen) to plan and conduct local and area 4‑H camp programs. Since the value of camp to campers has been well documented in Missouri and elsewhere (University of Missouri, 2007), one must ask the next logical question: What value does serving as a 4‑H camp counselor hold for teens?

Not only is it important to evaluate the value and relevance of camp and the 4‑H camp counseling experience for program improvement and general public information, it is increasingly important that the teens themselves realize the value and benefit serving as a counselor may have (Garst & Johnson, 2005).

Parents and other adults in the lives of teens also need to be aware of the long-term benefits of serving as a camp counselor. Those positive life benefits have been documented in a few other states recently by Brandt and Arnold (2006), Digby and Ferrari (2007), and Garst and Johnson (2005). The decisions regarding competing priorities in the lives of teens are often guided and influenced by key adults. Knowing the long-term benefits of service as a camp counselor can encourage those significant adults to help teens choose whether or not to serve as a camp counselor, and support them as they are called upon to focus on preparing to serve in that role.

Methods

The study instrument was developed by a team of Missouri Extension faculty. The instrument included the Youth Experiences Survey (YES) 2.0 (2005), developed by Larson, Jarrett, and Hansen; University of Illinois. Additional questions, developed by the Missouri research team, were added to the instrument to gather information such as prior experiences, involvement, training, expectations v. abilities, counselor's importance at camp, and the perceived value of camp counseling to them personally.

One hundred ninety-three (193) 4‑H camp counselors, representing seventeen different Missouri 4‑H camp programs, completed an extensive questionnaire at the conclusion of their service at camp. The instrument gathered both qualitative and quantitative data. The questionnaire usually required less than twenty minutes for each counselor to complete.

The instrument and process for administering the survey, including parental consent and counselor assent documents, were reviewed and approved by the University of Missouri Institutional Review Board (IRB #1080357). The completed questionnaires were collected by the Missouri Center for Youth Development. Data analysis was conducted by various University of Missouri faculty and graduate students.

Results

The response rate below shows the strong positive impact of the camp counseling experience for teens in all domains. Very few negative experiences were reported by the Missouri 4‑H camp counselors.

Camp counselors described accomplishments in the areas of leadership, public speaking, role modeling, teaching, helping campers have a positive experience, and making a connection with their campers. They also reported learning which of their own strategies didn't work for them as a counselor. They frequently mentioned learning that yelling and similar attempts at quieting campers and managing unruly behavior simply didn't work.

Some of the results were surprising: 63 percent reported an increased desire to stay in school; 65 percent reported job or career opportunities opened up for them; and 74 percent reported they were more prepared for college; all as a result of a short three to five day experience! This increase in their current educational and career commitment was one unanticipated outcome.

A variety of questions were asked to assess the level of the camp director's expectations as it related to the counselor's level of ability or comfort level. Counselors reported a high degree of "fit" between what was expected of them as a counselor, and the roles they were prepared and able to fill.

At the end of camp, in retrospect, respondents felt that they had been well prepared to serve as a counselor. In fact, they realized during and following camp that they were better prepared than they felt prior to camp.

Responses to the open-ended questions of "What things that you accomplished . . . were you most proud of?" and "After having had this experience . . . what personal skills or abilities would you like to improve further?" were summarized using the categories of the Targeting Life Skills Model (TLS) (Hendricks, 1998). The most often-mentioned TLS category responses regarding the "prouds" were related to "Giving," "Being," "Managing," "Relating," and "Caring." The researchers created an additional category: "Personal Confidence." Counselors hoped to develop further skills and abilities in the "Giving," "Being," "Managing," and "Relating" categories.

Discussion

Regardless of the differences between the various camp themes, structures, and programmatic priorities, the results were strongly positive and consistent throughout the state. Some results pointed to the powerful influence of the camp counselor experience on school motivation and decisions for the future for many teens — well outside of the camp experience. The Missouri 4‑H study results may already apply to your camp program.

How This Research Can Help You:

  • Use this proven study instrument with any group of counselors. The instrument and process were reviewed and approved as meeting high ethical and procedural standards by the MU Institutional Review Board.
  • Use this data or your own outcome data to recruit camp counselors.
  • Raise public awareness of the value of the camp counselor role in any setting.
  • Use the study instrument as an opportunity for counselors to reflect deeply on their experiences, helping them identify and internalize the skills and abilities gained.
  • Identify areas of strength and weakness in your training program and in your intentional camp culture.
  • Enhance and deepen your orientation, training, and post-camp contact with counselors and their parents.
  • Use the outcomes to promote your camp to current and potential stakeholders and funders.

Summary

These results have been powerful in helping design future counselor recruitment efforts and in deepening counselor training and orientation programs in Missouri. Even more importantly, this study has already been successful in validating and marketing the Missouri 4‑H camp program to important stakeholders and sponsors.

The consistent outcomes between the camping programs studied prove that the instrument and process can provide reliable and valid measures regardless of camp structure, management, or facility.

In a replicated study with other camps, basic data analysis could easily be completed by an individual camp program with a minimum of staff time.

If you are interested in measuring the impact of your program, the Missouri 4‑H instrument and process can be obtained by contacting the authors.

References
Brandt, J., & Arnold, M. E. (2006). Looking back, the impact of the 4‑H camp counselor experience on youth development: A survey of counselor alumni. Journal of Extension, 44(6). Article 6RIB1. Retrieved 12/22/2006 from www.joe.org/joe/2006december/rb1.shtml

Digby, Janel K., & Ferrari, T. M. (2007). Camp counseling and the development and transfer of workforce skills: The perspective of Ohio 4‑H camp counselor alumni. Journal of Youth Development, 2(2). Article 0702FA007. Retrieved from www.nae4ha.org/directory/jyd/jyd_article.aspx?id=7635c6ab-d0e4-4e88-a499...

Garst, B. A., & Johnson, J. (2005). Adolescent leadership skill development through residential 4‑H camp counseling. Journal of Extension, 43(5), Article number 5RIB5. Retrieved from www.joe.org/joe/2005october/rb5.shtml

Hanson, D. M., & Larson, R. (2005). The youth experience survey 2.0: instrument revisions and validity testing. Retrieved from http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/youthdev/UnpublishedManuscriptonYES2111%20(2).doc

Hendricks, P. A. (1998). Targeting life skills model. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension. Retrieved from www.extension.iastate.edu/4H/lifeskills/homepage.html

University of Missouri 4-H Center for Youth Development (2007). An evaluation of the effectiveness of life skill development in Missouri's 4‑H youth resident summer camps: A survey of 4‑H campers and their parents. A comparison of 2005 and 2006 studies. Retrieved from www.4h.missouri.edu/programs/camp/evaluationexsummary06.pdf

Donald J. Nicholson and Michelle D. Klem are 4-H youth development specialists at the University of Missouri. Contact the authors at Nicholsond@missouri.edu or KlemMD@missouri.edu.

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