Camper to Career: The Unique Path and Importance of Becoming a Summer Camp Professional

Kat Harlan
September 2018
staff having fun during training activity

Many of us who grew up going to summer camp feel like it was the place we could most be ourselves. If we had the option, we would make it our second (or first) home.

You probably have a story about your favorite counselor who you looked up to, who helped you imagine the personality traits you wanted to have when you grew up and opened your mind to new experiences.

It makes sense that many campers continue on to become staff members, because they want to do what their most memorable role models did.

I am one of the lucky ones. I’ve worked for two different summer camps under the same leadership. Tony and Stacie Oyenarte are the directors of Camp Lochearn, an all-girls summer camp in Post Mills, Vermont, where I started as a counselor and where I am now the camp registrar. Tony was also the director of the camp I grew up attending and where I was on staff for two summers, Camp Crystal Lake in Florida.

Without knowing anyone, I attended camp for the first time when I was 10 years old, just after moving to Florida. Sixteen years later, summer camp is now my career. The journey from camper to camp professional has been challenging, exhilarating, and rewarding all at the same time. But until it became a reality, working for a summer camp full time was a dream.

While day camps and residential summer camps are very prominent in the United States, and increasingly around the world, the idea of working year round for a camp or program that runs seasonally is not widely acknowledged or understood as a career path. As year-round camp professionals, we all get the question “What do you do the rest of the year?”

The concerning fact is that young professionals are not entering the camp field because of the amount of pressure they feel to get a “real” job. As students get closer to the day where they are clicking the Submit button on their job applications, the pressure heats up. They think about their résumé and summer camp experience, and wonder if they are enough.

While the experience at summer camp provided more real-world exposure than any of their other part-time jobs, camp counselors often fear they might be the only ones who see the validity in the skills learned while working at a summer camp — those 21st-century skills we hear so much about. Yet these skills are everything in the professional world — problem solving, creativity, innovation, collaboration, and, what I believe to be most important, communication. To perform these skills effectively is to be a versatile employee. It is the essence of one of Sam Parker’s Inspire Your People philosophies: “Work in a way that has those you serve continually thinking of ways to keep you rather than reasons to keep you.”

So, where do camp counselors get stuck? Why do they give in to that social pressure to get a “real” job and lean toward a career that more aligns with others’ ideas?

Every camp is different, and the progression up the leadership ladder may not be as straightforward as one would hope. My case, like the case of other camp professionals and directors whose stories I’ve heard, is an example. It is often the fact that you have put yourself in the right place at the right time. But timing is also the tricky part for most people. The question our counselors are asking themselves is “When will an opportunity realistically arise?”

Part of the dream of working full time for a summer camp is the ability to live out that dream at the camp one grew up loving. But there may not be a position immediately available at that camp, and young professionals can only wait so long for their dream position to become available.

Part of the beauty of summer camp is that it pushes us out of our comfort zones, so it is important to encourage camp counselors to seek other opportunities during the year or during the summer, even if that means you have to say goodbye to them. Amazing opportunities that incite true passion don’t come around very often. Let them spread their wings. The experience will eventually come full circle, and you may just be hiring them again in the future.

While our staff members and leadership team need to create their own opportunities, they have to have concrete moments to build upon: positive and constructive feedback, momentum, and encouragement. It is a give-and-take professional relationship that requires two steps: 1) A counselor rises to the occasion, or makes a mistake, and 2) the director makes it a teachable moment. We all make mistakes, but it is how we react, recover, and fix the mistake that turns it into a lesson.

Supportive leadership and mentoring are of monumental importance at camp. They have a trickle-down effect with the potential to influence the style of leadership of an entire staff. By learning from directors who make it part of their job to mentor, we are more likely to lead by example ourselves.

Dan Heath relayed a valuable lesson in his keynote speech at the 2018 ACA National Conference and in his book co-authored with his brother Chip Heath, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. There are many defining moments in our lives that continue to impact us years after these five-second moments occur (Heath, 2017). There are situations where we “make our own luck” by putting ourselves in the right place at the right time by our own volition. It is what we do in that instance that turns it into a defining moment.

As directors, assistant directors, or leadership staff members, we not only have the power to create defining moments for our campers and staff, but we have the obligation. It is our job to make sure we put the future of summer camps in capable and good-hearted hands. We have to identify those leaders who are so obviously part of our summer camp staff for the right reasons. They’re not worried about how much time off they get or if they’re going to meet their soulmate. They don’t even care how much they’re getting paid, and they don’t feel entitled just because they showed up. They are there for the kids.

You want to catch self-motivated, young counselors taking the initiative without being asked and doing good to contribute to the greater cause. Whether or not they know you’ve caught them, it is always better to recognize them in some way. Similarly, give them a chance to get it right, and encourage them to keep trying. Give them that constructive criticism that might sting at first, and then praise them when it really counts.

A huge reality is that camp jobs during the summer are 24/7. Eventually, real personalities are revealed. It becomes clear who your leaders are. Whether simple or grand, the acknowledgement of someone as a leader will create a defining moment for that staff member. It will also go a long way toward creating a culture in your program where the staff know the level of quality that is expected of them.

Summer camp has always been a facilitator for developing good core values: being your true self, finding your passion, and helping others. Summer camp also shines light on our strengths: creativity, organization, networking, teamwork, etc. Whatever passion or strength in life someone might have, it is needed somewhere in the camp industry. Graduates of environmental studies, agriculture, education, business, marketing, medicine, or hospitality all have a place and a means of making a career working for or with summer camps.

There are niches for everything in the summer camp industry: owning or directing a summer camp; developing programs; photography, website design and marketing; building climbing towers and ropes courses; specializing in team building or leadership training; hiking, canoeing, or outdoor adventure trip leading. The list goes on.

So, why is this so important? In the age of the “indoor generation,” we are spending less time outside, less time communicating face-to-face, and more time hunched over a smartphone. The option to drive when you could walk or ride a bike is too easy, and the idea of meditating on our self or reflecting on our day seems out of reach. We spend considerable time trying to figure out why we’re depressed or what other people think, and little time taking a breath of fresh air.

As passionate people working for summer camps and outdoor education programs, we must do what we can to pass on these monumentally important values. Find what it will take for your program to reach the next level by creating lasting impacts on your campers and staff. Today’s youth need it now more than ever, and by mentoring our counselors and campers, we will ensure strong camp leadership to provide it for generations to come.

Reference

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2017). The power of moments: Why certain experiences have extraordinary impact. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Kat Harlan is the registrar and camper specialist for Camp Lochearn, an all-girls summer camp in Post Mills, Vermont, dedicated to helping girls and young women develop self-confidence and kindness. With a degree in public relations and eight years of experience working for summer camps, Kat has combined her love for communication and camp into a career.