A Meeting of the Minds: Camp Directors, Higher Ed, and College Students

Kim Aycock, MST; Debra Jordan, ReD; and Gwynn M. Powell, PhD
January 2018

Camps need staff to run their programs; colleges/universities have various requirements for students regarding coursework and internships; and students are usually pulled between what they want to do and what they have to do to meet school and parent demands. How can we create a win-win situation for all involved?

Regardless of whether camps are hiring 20 or 200 staff, camp professionals tell us that it has become increasingly difficult to find quality staff. One of the reasons for not taking a camp job is without a doubt a pull for college students to have an internship or similar experience as part of their program requirements for graduation. In addition, college students often indicate a need to make money to pay for school and that they are looking for a “real” job. Parents also hear and buy into this message and want to ensure their sons and daughters are set up for career success. Because working at camp is often perceived as a job that one does for fun rather than a job that generates valuable work/life skills, these different voices are often in conflict with camp needs.

Competing Needs and Wants

Students are strongly encouraged or may be required by schools to find a job that can serve as a practicum or internship and/or by parents to choose a type of job that will clearly set them up for success on their career path. At the same time, for college students who have previous camp experience (as camper or staff), working at camp is often at the top of their desired job list. They understand the value of camp and the difference they make in the lives of campers. However, students feel pressure to get a more traditional job that helps with school or living expenses, allows them to take classes (typically online) during the summer to get ahead or graduate on time, or aligns with potential career-related work. As more colleges promote travel and study abroad options, some prospective and veteran staff choose that route instead. Information shared here highlights three competing perspectives and then seeks workable solutions for all.

College Students

College students often need (and have to pay for) summer school credit. Whether it is credit for working at camp or taking an online course, students need Internet access and laptop time to do homework throughout the summer. They need experience relevant to their career choice, something that pays enough to cover school expenses, and they want to remain connected to friends and family as much as possible. In addition, students encounter other demands on their time. One student said, “I want to be at camp but have some conflicts [weddings, university orientation, family vacation], so I need flexibility with time off.”

Camp Professionals

Camps are looking for college students who see camp as a genuine job (that will help them in any career they choose), who buy into the mission of camp, and are returning/experienced staff. In addition, directors need prospective staff who will show up and keep their commitment once they accept a camp job offer. One director said, “I want them [students] to understand the job well enough before they arrive so that they don’t back out during orientation. I need them to read the information packet I send [prior to camp].”

In addition to indicating what they need in terms of summer staff, camp directors report a need to develop partnerships with university faculty who can then facilitate and encourage students to work as summer camp staff.

College Faculty

College professors report that to accept a summer camp job as a valid course-equivalent experience, students must gain a wide range of professional experiences — learning about the business and maintenance sides of camp as well as direct leadership and programming. Further, certain experiences and hours worked are needed to ensure that a student continues to be eligible for financial aid. In terms of students earning academic credit for camp work, faculty need camp directors to give students honest and specific feedback about their performance to help them improve — and to involve faculty in that process. In addition, faculty need communication from camp professionals throughout the summer to ensure that course requirements are being met. One university professor said, “I want the camp to understand what competencies I need the student to be able to demonstrate at the end of the internship [and to help the students achieve them].”

Three Collaborative Solutions for Camp Directors

Use Word of Mouth

Channel and build on informal word of mouth by current staff.

Study your successful college student staff: Learn about their clubs, majors, and extracurricular activities; find a way to get in front of those organizations via that student (provide student-staff a video clip they could send out, an outline of an announcement they could make in class or at a club meeting, a business card that lists them as a camp staff representative with camp contact information as well as theirs). Meet with your student-staff at the end of the summer and say that you want to find more good people like them (they might not realize you think they were good) and ask them to help you brainstorm ideas.

Create cool, generation-relevant titles for camp jobs that give meaning on a resume and communicate all that a job entails (e.g., camp counselor = youth development specialist).

Give student-staff something that sparks a conversation with a peer: a t-shirt that says, “I had a real job this summer, ask me about it;” a sticker for their laptop, a luggage tag for their backpack — it should say something catchy that is more than the camp name.

Use social media to celebrate student staff. Post interesting and exciting pictures of them doing great work and tag them with praises. They might not admit it, but they like it!

Create a Geofilter (a creative overlay that captures where you are or what you’re up to in a Snap) for your camp and encourage staff to craft and post stories to social media (of course, with proper training in line with a social media policy and a discussion about the types of people you hope to attract).

In addition to summer pay, offer to cover the expense of college credit that students will incur if they are enrolled in a practicum or internship during camp.

Partner with Colleges

Develop partnerships with campus departments, faculty, staff, and career centers.

Look at faculty biographies (or vitae) and search for a connection with what they list as interest or research areas. Each faculty member is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reaching out to them (you might look to see if they have school-age children, volunteer with a community agency, conduct research connected with youth, etc.).

Talk to career services staff about job fairs (campus-wide, college-wide, specific departments) and ask a student from your camp to run your table. You can be down the hall doing interviews while the student talks to their peers and collects names and numbers (rather than asking for mailing addresses, focus on names, phone numbers for texting, and email addresses). If you can’t attend a job fair, find out if the university has an information table where you can display your camp information or if they host virtual job fair so that you can provide a link to your website.

Send faculty, the Office of Student Affairs, and Career Services staff an email that can be easily forwarded to students (no attachments; includes an engaging introduction and a link to more information). Don’t make faculty reformat or edit your materials. They won’t take the time to do it.

Ask to be a guest speaker in a class and tie your presentation to the content of the course. Faculty want more than a sales pitch. Ask the professor what they intend to talk about that day and suggest some topics on which you can give a lecture: marketing, customer service, communication, budgeting, leadership, youth development, staff interviewing, and so on. Faculty have days when they will be out of town to attend professional meetings — offer to present during one of those sessions. Be willing to talk about the camp profession as a whole rather than just your camp so students can see the range of jobs and recognize the field as a potential job market. Be sure to talk about the field of youth development and the possibility of year-round jobs.

Send a brief, ready-made computer presentation to faculty that has interesting graphics and includes your contact information. Make several so you can highlight opportunities in leadership, administration, marketing, maintenance, and so on. These can be sent to faculty in related majors.

Target specific jobs to specific departments. Need a camp store manager, how about an accounting major? A climbing wall supervisor, how about the campus outdoor recreation center student workers? Students in sustainable agriculture, education, psychology, social work, hospitality, and other majors may be most suitable for particular camp jobs.

Ask a college student “rock star” staff member for the name of a faculty member/advisor with whom he or she connects and write the professor an email sharing how impressed you were with the student and show your appreciation for the faculty member’s mentorship/teaching. Provide some camp letterhead and ask the staff member to write their faculty member thanking them for the content from a course they saw come alive on the job. That will get some attention!

Invite individual faculty to visit your camp and give them a camp tour highlighting the nature of various camp jobs and the professional skills that students can gain while working at camp.

Work with student-staff and faculty to create a brochure that articulates how camp jobs can serve as internships or practica; include typical internship or practicum requirements and match them up with camp job opportunities.

Work with faculty and students to reconceptualize traditional camp jobs (such as counselor) so students can be exposed to as many camp functions as possible; the broader the experience students can gain, the more “acceptable” (to students, parents, faculty) the job will be. Brainstorm ways that camp jobs can be flexible to accommodate student-staff needs to be away from camp at different times during the summer.

Target specific scholarship or academic honors groups (Bonner Scholars, Environmental Science, Honors college members, and others) and learn how to best reach students in those programs.

Consider hiring students at all times of the year. Internships can contribute to camp needs throughout the off-season and universities often offer these opportunities in the fall and spring as well as the summer.

Pool resources to do a coordinated “get a real job this summer — at camp” campaign on specific campuses to drive students to the American Camp Association’s (ACA) summer camp job page.

Actively Build Rapport

Build rapport once you have a live prospect to reel them in.

Attend job fairs and when talking with students treat them as individuals — students want to be recognized for the unique people they are; avoid looking like “any old student” you grab is acceptable to work at your camp.

If a student is not a fit for your camp, encourage them to visit another camp that is at the job fair.

Students use texting much more than email, so text them for a faster response (if needed, text them to ask them to check their email for a longer message from you).

Stay current with the social media being used by each generation of staff; currently Instagram and Snapchat (as well as Facebook) are popular forms of communication among college students. WhatsApp and Group Me are text messaging programs to keep in touch with groups and international staff.

Show you care by checking in within 24 to 48 hours (more quickly than you think is reasonable — for you two weeks may be okay; not to them).

Connect (by sharing text numbers) potential student-staff with former campers or other students on campus (or elsewhere) who have worked at camp to foster a relationship with your camp.

Start a Facebook group that sends out bite-sized information on a regular basis, including entertaining pictures of camp staff doing their jobs and fun quotes from the summer.

If you are not going to hire an applicant, inform them professionally and quickly so they can begin looking for other options and are less likely to bad-mouth your organization because of how you rejected them.

The bottom line is that everyone wants to get the most out of their summer experience. Camp professionals want the best staff; college faculty want students to demonstrate a wide range of learning; and students want to make money, gain skills toward a career path, and have fun. All of these are possible through creative thinking, collaboration, and communication. By working toward a common goal, together we can successfully meet the needs of camps, schools, and students.


Photo courtesy of CYO Camp and Retreat Center, Occidental, California.

Kim Aycock, MST, has more than 30 years of experience blending the skills of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert. She trains camp staff at all levels and speaks professionally at regional and national conferences. More information can be found on her website: kimaycock.com. Kim may be contacted at kimdaycock@gmail.com.

Debra Jordan, ReD, is a professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at East Carolina University and has worked at camps and with the ACA, Southeastern section for many years. Deb can be reached by email at jordand@ecu.edu.

Gwynn M. Powell, PhD, is on the faculty in Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University and has two decades of camp experience in the USA, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey. Contact Gwynn at gwynnp@clemson.edu.