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Research: Exploring What Staff Gains from Work at Camp
An understanding of the changes that take place throughout a summer camp experience can prove extremely beneficial in the recruitment of staff members. The ability to attract large numbers of qualified applicants is often a challenge for summer camp directors (American Camping Association 1995). A working knowledge of the benefits of a summer camp position can assist camp directors in conveying these benefits to potential staff members through employment marketing efforts and during the interview and selection process. In addition, knowledge regarding summer camp’s ability to promote changes that will contribute to one’s life success can be critical. This knowledge provides camp administrators with the ability to present a summer camp staff experience to potential staff members and influential others, such as parents, peers, and college advisors, as an investment in the future. (Jeff Jacobs, Cal Poly State University)
With the unemployment rate surging to 6.4 percent in June 2003, its highest level in over nine years, employers in the seasonal job market are attempting to highlight skills, competencies, and abilities that can contribute to future employability. Potential seasonal staff are often on a quest for lifetime employability, hoping to acquire new skills that will assist in ensuring a lifetime of employment (Meister 1998). Professionals in the camp field know that many young adults, who have worked at camp, have gained the skills and confidence that have made major impacts in their personal lives, careers, and the leadership roles they hold in their communities.
Attracting, training, and retaining staff at camp has become a challenge due to the number of choices for summer employment and alternative experiences for young adults. If we can more clearly articulate some of the benefits of the camp staff experience to prospective applicants, we would better be able to attract and retain young adults of the highest caliber to work with our campers. More work needs to be done to help substantiate the benefits associated with summer camp employment. The following studies were presented at the 2004 Camp Research Symposium held at the American Camping Association National Conference and provides practical applications for camp directors and staff to consider for the current season and beyond.
The Effects of Summer Camp Employment on Emotional Intelligence
While an undergraduate student, I treasured my summers working as a summer camp staff member. During my spring semester final exams, the light at the end of the tunnel was knowing that shortly after packing up my books and cleaning out my closet I would be on my way to summer camp. Yet each year, without exception, someone — a parent, advisor, friend, or peer — would say to me, "When are you going to get a real job?" Two decades later, potential staff members are still being asked the same question by people with influence. Staff that are considering returning to camp and new applicants that are pursuing a summer camp staff experience can find it difficult to defend the decision to spend a summer working with children in a summer camp setting. Why is it that many people do not consider summer camp employment a "real job"? What criteria are being used to make decisions regarding the worth of a summer experience? How does the summer camp staff experience influence a person’s future success?
The purpose of this study was to identify how the summer camp experience impacts staff members and to better understand if emotional intelligence (EI) is developed through summer camp employment. Emotional intelligence refers to a "type of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions (Mayer & Salovey 1993, p.433)."
Developing a better understanding of the interface between summer camp employment and emotional intelligence and of the potential long-term benefits associated with the organized camp staff experience could lead to a broader acknowledgment of the positive impact of organized camping on society. Uncovering and understanding these long-term benefits are vital for camp administrators (DeGraaf & Glover 2002).
The concept of noncognitive intelligence, which is measured by EI, brings new depth to the understanding of intelligence and increases our ability to assess general intelligence (BarOn 1997). While cognitive intelligence is more strategic, one’s capacity to function, noncognitive intelligence, is more tactical and influences one’s ability for immediate functioning. Noncognitive intelligence may help to predict success because it reflects how a person applies knowledge to the immediate situation. "In a way, to measure emotional, personal, and social intelligence is to measure one’s ability to cope with daily situations and to get along in the world (BarOn 1997, p.3)."
EI encompasses many of the skills, attributes, and abilities that are often developed and enhanced through summer camp employment, such as: flexibility, problem solving, empathy, emotional self-awareness, stress tolerance, optimism, happiness, and interpersonal relationships. EI has credibility in the "real world," with Fortune 500 corporations and human resources professionals, as an accurate indicator of employment success and leadership ability. EI has been seen to have the ability to predict who is likely to succeed and who is likely to fail. Research on EI has helped to demonstrate which human abilities make up the greater part of the ingredients for excellence at work, most especially for leadership. EI is considered the new yardstick against which essential human talents will be measured and advancement decisions will be made (Goleman 1998).
Data was collected from staff who worked directly with campers at six residential summer camps of the Twin Cities YMCA in Minnesota utilizing the BarOn EQ-i, a self-administered questionnaire. The EQ-i consists of 133 items and takes approximately 30 minutes to complete. The EQ-i consists of five composite scales — Intrapersonal Scales, Interpersonal Scales, Adaptability Scales, Stress Management Scales, and General Mood Scales — which contain fifteen subscales. A pre-post-test design was utilized, where staff completed the EQ-i on either the second or third day of their summer season and then again when the camp had completed 90 percent — 100 percent of their season. In addition, staff members were asked to complete an end-of-season questionnaire.
This additional questionnaire focused on the fifteen subscales of emotional intelligence and gathered data that highlighted changes that occurred within these scales from the beginning to the end of the summer camp season. Staff members not only indicated where changes occurred but also linked these changes with specific programs, responsibilities, and attributes of their summer camp experience that led to these changes.
Results and Discussion
The EQ-i data revealed significant increases in emotional intelligence for summer camp staff members through examination of pre- and post-test scores. This increase was significant for the total EQ score, four of the five composite scales of emotional intelligence and eight of the fifteen subscales of emotional intelligence. The significant subscales included: stress tolerance, self-actualization, social responsibility, optimism, assertiveness, empathy, happiness, and interpersonal relationships.
The data from the questionnaire illustrated that the respondents felt as though they experienced minor or significant increases along the majority of the fifteen subscales. The programs, responsibilities, and attributes of the summer camp experience that were reported most often as leading to these changes include: residential work environment, meaningful and rewarding employment, a fun atmosphere, multiple leadership opportunities, diverse and challenging responsibilities, difficult campers and demanding situations, limited distractions, and being outdoors.
Staff Training and Development
The findings of this study will allow camp professionals, seasonal employees, and the camp community to clearly explain why summer camp employment is a "real job." These findings will help the camp profession establish the bridge that connects and transfers the skills, talents, attributes, and abilities enhanced through a summer camp employment experience to life beyond summer camp. Summer camp employment not only provides fun in the sun and meaningful work, but also helps equip staff members with critical competencies that contribute to career and leadership advancement.
The Unique Contributions and Impacts of the Camp Staff Experience
The purpose of this research was to ascertain the unique contributions and impacts that camps have made on individuals who have worked as camp staff. A total of 188 camp staff representing 117 different resident camps primarily in the northeast completed a questionnaire that investigated how their camp staff experience had made an impact on the development of their skills or attitudes in 17 different life-skills areas. Eighty-seven camp staff had worked at camp during the summer of 2002 (current staff).
The remaining 101 staff (former staff) had worked at camp previously, anywhere from one to forty years ago. The participants were asked to rate (1 — no impact, 2 — moderate impact, 3 — much impact) how their camp experience made an impact on the development of their skills or attitudes in seventeen different life-skills areas. Questions about the impact of the camp staff experience on their relationships, career and educational choices, community involvement and volunteerism, and motivation to work at camp were also included.
Open-ended questions relating to the uniqueness of camp and the benefits they received, as well as general comments, were completed with a great deal of thought. Given the large amount of information received, it seemed like staff were extremely enthusiastic about their experiences and felt it valuable to share the details with others.
The data was analyzed in a variety of ways. Means were calculated and compared for the seventeen different life-skills areas, and a ranking was obtained for current and former staff groups. Percentages were calculated for most of the other questions. The open-ended responses were grouped according to certain themes, providing most valuable "testimony" to the individual impact of the camp staff experience.
Results and Discussion
The rankings between current and former staff do not indicate extensive differences. This trend supports the understanding that the life skills ranked are universal and can stand the test of time. For the purpose of this study, generalizations will be made on the combined data. The life skills with the highest mean scores, obtaining a ranking in the top four, include leadership skills, sense of responsibility, ability to relate to children, and self-confidence. Those ranked five through seven include conflict-resolution skills, group or team skills, and decision-making skills.
The next grouping, ranked eight through ten, included role models or mentors, people of different backgrounds and sense of life purpose. The rankings continue with sense of involvement in community, appreciation of the natural environment, administrative skills, developing creativity, parenting skills, volunteer commitments, and sense of spirituality.
For the question regarding motivation to work at camp, the reasons with the highest percentages (92 percent to 86 percent), and clearly the top three, included that "it was fun," they wanted to work with children, and they enjoyed being outdoors. A high percentage (51 percent) was also found for those saying they were a camper and always wanted to be a counselor and gaining skills for future employment. About a third of the participants chose camp because a friend encouraged them or they wanted to explore a new state or country.
High percentages of both current (56.7 percent) and former staff (64.7 percent) had not chosen a career before coming to camp. For current staff (73.8 percent) and former staff (51.7 percent), camp made an impact on their career choice. For about half of the participants, camp had made an impact on their educational choices. For current staff, 45.8 percent have taken on leadership in professional organizations, and this has been the case for 57.4 percent of the former staff. A very high percentage of camp staff are currently involved in their communities.
Research results indicated 41.4 percent of the current staff and 63.8 percent of the former staff currently do community volunteer work. Several (5.7 percent current staff, 10.6 percent former staff) have held elected office. More than a third have volunteered for their camp. Camp has made a huge impact on the friendships staff have made and kept for many years. The mean number of close friends current staff make is 8.75; former staff 1 to 5 years ago — 7.44; 6 to 15 years ago — 4.12; and even after 15 years, 2.78.
This research has numerous applications for the camp director, individual staff members, and the American Camping Association. One of the motivations for this research was to gather information on specific life skills that camp staff gain at camp as well as other data that can be used to enhance marketing efforts for staff recruitment. The research supports the marketing messages that camp is a safe and nurturing environment, a caring community, and a vital element in education, enabling us to better understand the benefits staff value from the camp experience.
Camp is a unique environment that provides many opportunities for personal growth. Each camp develops its own culture and individuals must learn how to work in a situation unlike any other. Camp also encourages risk taking and being open to opportunities to try new things. These might be learning new skills, working with children or people from different backgrounds, or the responsibilities of holding a new job and being part of a team. Some of the personal benefits staff often mentioned that they gained at camp include independence, self-confidence, morals and ethics, techniques in social situations, sense of humor, being more relaxed, responsibility, decision making, sense of life purpose, role models, compassion, commitment, respect, and new interests.
It is important for staff to realize that many of the skills they learn at camp have been shown to be important factors of success in the workplace. In addition to some skills mentioned earlier, camp staff also recognized that they gained skills in problem solving, communications, organization, supervision, and management, as well as flexibility, creativity, compassion, patience, a sense of humor, and work ethics.
Many staff are working at camp during times of transition in their lives. The results of this study clearly show that camp has had a major influence on career and educational choices. Camp provides a "testing ground" to try out new behaviors, develop interests that they may not have had the opportunity to explore, and receive structured and compassionate feedback as well as support.
Several implications for staff training can be gleaned from the many comments from staff. When we understand who staff are and their greatest needs, camp directors can structure staff training opportunities to maximize the most learning. They can make the most of returning staff in a way that enables them to model the benefits they have received and promotes smooth integration of new staff. Through supervision and a process of self-evaluation, staff can learn to identify what they have learned and how they will translate that back into "their world after camp." A large percentage of staff have been campers and also counselors in training.
Camps who "grow their own" staff have the opportunity to start the education and awareness process early. They can also take advantage of the incredible friendships that form and grow from year to year. Staff reported that the friendships they made at camp were quite different from others in their lives. Some of the special qualities of camp friendships that staff mentioned include: a great deal of respect and trust; more genuineness, special bonding, or closeness; and supportiveness. Staff also noted camp friendships develop between people who in any other situation might never have thought they would have anything in common or be attracted to each other.
Camps need to remember that connections and loyalty are important in their camp operation. Former camp staff often enjoy keeping in touch, play important roles in public relations through the recruitment of campers and staff, fill a number of volunteer roles, and provide financial support. As shown in the research, a large percentage of former staff are active volunteers in their community, which establishes good community ties.
Translating the value of the camp staff experience for community leaders is important. Camps can be partners in community development. They can make an economic impact in the town, provide employment opportunities, or establish strong environmental awareness and stewardship programs. It is important to take the time to form good relationships with community leaders. These relationships can have lasting benefits for the camp and the community and in a time of crisis can be invaluable. For more information, please see: www.canr.uconn.edu/ces/camp_fact_sheets/camp_index.html.
Gwynn M. Powell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Georgia. Please contact Powell through e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.
Originally published in the 2004 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.