To say that expectations and pressures for high school students have increased is an understatement. The competition to get into the best universities dominates the minds of teenagers and parents alike, with colleges seemingly ever more selective. This shift has put renewed emphasis on augmenting adolescent learning experiences.

For most people, learning conjures up images of classrooms. But there are other important categories as well. A less obvious one can occur during the summer through "experiential learning," which includes gaining skills and understanding through organic, hands-on exposure.

During my last six summers, such learning has come primarily from my time at camp, as both a camper and teen leader.

Spending up to seven weeks with my fellow campers has allowed me to foster skills — some seemingly basic but essential — as well as qualities of character that would probably not have developed in the classroom. Most importantly, what I have gained from these experiences has also enabled me to find success elsewhere.

This past summer, in addition to returning to camp, I chose to embark on foreign study, participating in a four-week language program in Rennes, France. During this "School Year Abroad" (SYA), I stayed with a host family while taking language classes and exploring the culture of northwestern France.

My friends and family were as excited as I was about this new adventure. They asked if I was nervous, thinking it might be scary to jump into the unknown, far away from home and not knowing a single person. Actually, I wasn't worried at all. Except for possibly making a fool of myself by crashing into the language barrier with my ninth-grade, subpar-at-best French, I had done this before.

Indeed, the skills that I had acquired over my five years at camp became some of my most valuable assets during my journey in France.

Living at camp had forced me to interact and build relationships with others face-toface, not just on one side of a phone or computer screen. I learned how to create strong, healthy, and close friendships. From eating meals together to teaching kids tennis with fellow junior counselors, I connected with campers of different ages and genders.

At SYA, despite being one of only seven boys in the 33-student program — as well as one of the youngest — I was easily able to break through age and gender gaps. I brought people together, even those who were shy initially.

At camp, I had met kids and adults from differing backgrounds within the US and abroad. I developed a keener awareness of cultural dissimilarities and learned how to handle such barriers, whether they were eating habits, hygiene regimens, or fashion choices.

Of course, constant close contact with peers can lead to problems along the way, such as conflict over personal space or sharing. While such seemingly minor issues are typically avoidable in the classroom, in cabins campers must confront and resolve them.

The greatest challenges I faced while abroad, however, often came from within. Self-management was the make-or-break task of a successful experience in Rennes. My ability to take care of myself did not magically coalesce on the plane to France; much of it came from summers of understanding that my freedom away from home necessitated my completing tasks without regular reminders or aid. I've realized that a healthy dose of responsibility early on goes a long way toward independence down the road. Taking responsibility for myself as well as for my requirements and personal goals as a junior counselor had instilled in me the same positive habits that enabled me to manage both my daily 40-minute, two-bus commute and my progress with the French language.

At camp I also experienced a culture of leadership among the junior counselors and gained essential values from that. These values have made me an asset, rather than simply a guest or participant, in other programs. In fact, the more I spoke of my time abroad, the more compelling a connection I saw between my learning experiences at camp and those in France.

Last fall I began yet another new life chapter, starting my first year at Phillips Academy Andover. The same challenges I faced at camp and in France awaited me there. But I knew that my last six summers had equipped me with the skills, confidence, and character not only to survive, but also to thrive at Andover.

At camp, I had found a preparation for life.

Thomas Wiener is a sophomore at Phillips Academy Andover, in Massachusetts, where he plays soccer and tennis. A native of Greenwich, Connecticut, Thomas is a member of the teen leadership program at Cape Cod Sea Camps and, last summer, also participated in an educational exchange program in France. He enjoys volunteering and working for tutoring and after-school programs for younger students in the Andover area.

Photo courtesy of Camp Manitowish, Boulder Junction, Wisconsin.