Can I Really Spend Another Summer Working at Camp?

November 4, 2019
Leah Mesches

A summer camp is a place for continued growth and learning, whether you are a camper or a counselor, a first-year staff member, or a four-year veteran.

If you’re a college student and you’ve worked at a summer camp, you probably know what it’s like to be a part of a community where you are valued, empowered to be creative, and held accountable as you work long days. You have been stretched, and you know what it means to do a job with purpose. You have practiced skills at camp that are the same skills needed in a more traditional, future workplace (for instance: communication, leadership, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and work ethic).  You know how it feels to put all of your energy into your work, and you have likely never worked this hard in any other job. You can survive with little to no personal space, minimum sleep, and somehow every story you tell still starts with “this summer, at camp . . . "

For many first-time camp counselors, the job is the first time you are answering to a boss or manager. Not every organization can provide empathetic and patient managers who care about your success, but a camp can! As a counselor, your supervisor will hold you to high expectations and you will rise to the occasion. The experience can help you learn about what you value in a manager and start to figure out how you want to lead others. You've read about the skills that hold value in the professional world, and this job is a chance to practice the skills that every kind of business will appreciate in their employees.

Weighing the Options

Fast forward: It's November. You have spent as much time away from camp and back at school as you spent at camp over the summer. You’ve had time to settle back into your school routine and have been reintroduced to the pressures of attaining competitive internships and furthering your career goals. Your camp director has probably reached out and asked if you would like to return to camp, and you might be wondering if it’s worth spending another summer as a counselor or staff member. How are you going to score that great internship or “real-world” job later on if you commit to another summer at camp right now? It can be a tough decision to make, but your time at camp can help prepare you for your future interviews and jobs.

To illustrate this point, let me tell you about Meredith. Her time as a counselor and leadership team member enabled her to realize how critical it is to consider the many moving parts at play in any position. Meredith is currently a teacher and feels she became better equipped to handle both the needs of her students and their parents after working at camp. When Meredith was interviewing for teaching jobs, she was able to tell her interviewers how valuable her camp experience was, especially when it came to giving and receiving feedback. She was able to explain that even when days don’t go as planned, there is a lesson to be learned. She said, “Learning from mistakes was always something I was mindful about because I knew I would be giving and receiving feedback about what worked and what needed to be improved.” Camp also taught her to be a part of an organization where everyone is playing a different role, but have shared goals (in this case, making sure kids are safe, having fun, and growing).

Maybe you want to get into finance, medicine, tech, engineering, or the venture capital world. Camp can help give you the confidence to lead a team and speak in front of large numbers of people. A former camp counselor and current Yale MBA candidate, Hayley, said: "It can be nerve-wracking to give a presentation to a room full of people  but if you’ve spent your summer dancing and singing in front of the entire camp (sometimes hundreds of people), that presentation is going to be a breeze." Furthermore, if you’ve led a cabin or group full of rowdy kids and fellow counselors, leading a couple of adults on a team project becomes incredibly manageable.

So, What Did You Learn Last Summer?

Working a summer at camp can be incredibly valuable leadership training. You are forced to be in charge of people (i.e., that cabin or group of 12 kids). You must communicate with many different personality types, and you continuously adjust and adapt to people’s requests and needs. It's not always easy. You learn how to problem-solve. You build a ton of relationships and master how to balance everyone’s different requirements and working styles.

Now is a great time to think about all that you learned and practiced last summer. Did you have to have a plan each day to keep your campers engaged? Did you need to be flexible when dealing with a range of emotions and obstacles thrown your way? Did you react swiftly when your best-laid plans went awry?  Did you have to work with a co-counselor or other staff members to teach an activity or lead a group?

Is there anything you wish you had done but didn’t? Is there a responsibility that you could take on as a returner to polish some of the skills that will be necessary for your future jobs? Can you help mentor or coach new staff members? Are there opportunities for professional development and growth? A high-functioning camp will find a way to meet your needs if you are willing to put in the work.

Camp is also a place to learn about positive organizational culture. If a camp is doing it right, you will be celebrated for your hard work. You will also get to celebrate your friends or peers for their hard work. These team meetings can be empowering and transformational. The world needs more of this!

Why Camp Provides Continuous Learning

Let’s say you spend five or more summers working at camp, and each year you get to expand your role and impact. Robert, a school teacher and coach, spent many summers at camp and is certain that he learned something new every year. Robert said, "You may be running your classroom on your own, but you still need to work on a team, answer to administration, and show confidence in what you are doing." Camp is the best place to learn these skills. Robert believes that working weeks at a camp is equivalent to years of leadership training. His experience as a counselor and then activities director has heavily influenced how he serves his students and families in the classroom and on the field. He has improved his assertiveness, conflict management, and how to help regulate the emotions of his students and peers.

Now is a great time to consider what you’ve already learned and how you might be able to grow while spending another incredible summer at camp! I challenge you to consider this: how might another incredible summer at camp grow and change you? What new responsibilities or tasks are you ready to take on? What skills can you continue to gain and hone if you work at camp again?

After reflecting on these and other questions, schedule a time to meet with your camp director to discuss your goals and your role for the upcoming summer. You’ll be glad you did!

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Shady Brook in Deckers, CO.

Leah Mesches is passionate about creating a positive organizational culture and work environment where employees can continue to learn and grow. Leah has more than 13 years in the camp industry (and 30 summers at camp!). She spent 11 years as a director at Camp Champions and holds a master's in social work from The University of Texas at Austin. She fully supports ACA's Project Real Job and believes every student should work at least one summer at camp before joining the workforce. If you'd like to connect with Leah, please email lmesches@gmail.com