Conversations with leadership camp directors, teenage participants, religious educators, and parents (including my own) suggest that today’s leadership camps are no longer like the Boy Scout Jamborees my father attended as a teenager. While camp participants still drink bug juice in the dining hall and sing songs after dinner, today’s high school leadership camps are highly structured, inclusive programs that hire professional training staff and engage teenagers in leadership exercises modeled after a page from General Electric’s corporate management training manual. To compete with all the opportunities available to teenagers each summer, leadership camps must do no less than guarantee the transformation of the awkward high schooler into the 21st century.
With the support of Professor Tove Hammer, Professor Marty Wells, Jeffrey Hoffman, international director of Summer Programs for BBYO, Inc., and the staff of the Martin P. Catherwood Library, I investigated the impact leadership camps have on the skill development, motivation, and values of their teenage participants. By tracking 138 high school teenagers from across North America, Europe, Canada, and Israel who attended BBYO’s International Leadership Training Conference (ILTC), a Jewish leadership camp located in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, the challenges involved in training adolescents became evident and some ideas that camp administrators could utilize to make their leadership programs more effective evolved.
Overall, the research project highlights that the ILTC program achieves many of the goals the camp seeks to accomplish (see “Methodology” sidebar on page 48). Teenage participants reported that they left the leadership camp feeling as though they had developed stronger leadership skills and could move from camp to the external world with confidence and effectiveness. Participating teenagers reported that they could now manage their peers more effectively and, as a result of enhanced leadership skills learned at camp, were appointed or elected to a greater number of positions in community and high school extracurricular activities. There were also some surprises in the findings. Teenagers’ gender, age, and previous success in high school all played significant roles in determining the extent to which each teenager benefited from the camp experience. Surprising? Yes. But also an avenue for innovation. A careful analysis of our findings provides direction for developing a more effective leadership curriculum.
Create a gender-defined component of the leadership curriculum.
Instructor preparation and classroom training is a necessity.
A small but vocal group of teenage participants continually voiced the concern that they were not being “challenged” enough during the leadership sessions I observed in this study. However, those leadership instructors who had a strong grasp of the training material were able to remain focused, creating games aligned with the lessons, which resulted in in-depth discussions among engaged participants. These instructors successfully challenged the more highly skilled teenage participants and ensured that all teenage participants’ needs were met during the camp.
Ensuring that leadership instructors have an extensive understanding of their topic does not have to come at a high cost. Minor changes can result in a great enhancement to the leadership curriculum. Rather than being assigned eight different leadership sessions to teach, during the summer of 2003, each ILTC leadership instructor developed and taught only two specific leadership sessions. During camp, these instructors repeated their classes multiple times for different groups of participants. The result was that participants felt challenged, instructors had a better grasp of the leadership material, and the leadership sessions continually improved throughout the summer.
Partner with a university to design a follow-up exercise or project.
Leadership Camps — Skills and Memories to Last a Lifetime
I attended my first leadership camp as a nervous, unfocused high school adolescent. I had completed my freshman year at Commack High School and was hesitant about spending two weeks in the Pocono Mountains with complete strangers. But when the program came to a close, I left motivated, self-confident, and charged with a desire to get involved within my high school and local community.
Leadership camps provide young people with memories that last a lifetime, but they also have a very practical and expanding role. These camp experiences provide adolescents with the opportunity to foster self-identity and develop interpersonal skills. I attended because I envied those who spent their summers in the Pocono Mountains around a campfire — singing, bonding, and discussing the topics of the day. What I experienced was more — I acquired tools for the future, not just fond memories of the past.
Noah Adam Doyle is a lifetime camper. Growing up, Doyle attended Camp Kaufman, in Dix Hills, New York; Cedar Lake Camp, a division of the New Jersey “Y” Camp located in Milford, Pennsylvania; and worked as a counselor for B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. During his time at Cornell University, Doyle served a one-year term as President of Cornell’s undergraduate student body (2002-2003). He is currently living in Geneva, Switzerland, working for the International Labor Organization (ILO) and completing a book, An Amateur’s Guide to Running Effective Meetings. You can contact him at Gever14836@aol.com .
Originally published in the 2004 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.