It’s difficult for me to imagine a more demanding and multifaceted job for young people than being a camp counselor. Yet not everyone sees it that way.
At first glance, sure, there’s plenty of fun in camp counseling. But does having a chance to take a swim in the afternoon mean that everything else a counselor does is slack? Far from it. Still, the “not a real job” stigma sticks.
Sometimes parents, eager to help their young adult children gain experience and ready themselves for a full-time career, voice concerns that it’s more important to get a “real job” than to be a camp counselor. For them a “real job” means something that imparts life experience, workplace skills, and solid career tools to bolster their chances in the competitive job market after college.
If you ask me, that sounds just like what a camp counselor learns. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
It’s not all fun and games
In a recent USA Today article, “Skip the Internship, Go to Camp,” and another, “Writing Camp Jobs on a Résumé,” the authors argue for the many unique merits a camp counseling job imparts, including when done for several years in a row.
What’s important about these articles is their focus on being a camp counselor or a camp professional as very much a “real job” which, along with developing key skills and experiences, will enhance one’s career path.
In the USA today piece, author Darryl Brown writes that as a camp counselor he is
…part of an organization that gives me duties that are critical to its long- and short-term success. Supervisors give me responsibilities such as interacting directly with customers on a daily basis, and they fully integrate me into the professional hierarchy. To top it all off, I am learning legitimate skills that will help me develop professionally when I move into the workforce.
And he contrasts this with internships, arguing that too often internships are more secretarial than industry specific.
Indeed, not only do most offices give interns mundane tasks that the aforementioned employees would never do, but they are also given tasks that will only be taken over by another intern.
Our staff training
Training of staff across jobs in the camp industry — including doing tasks that are readily translated to other fields — is exactly how we approach staff training and the workload at Camp Alleghany. I work in a very focused way with my counseling staff on this very issue every summer.
A counselor’s main priority is, of course, the campers and the camp experience. But this too is real work. This focus directly reflects in customer satisfaction, responsibility for safety, using creativity to implement new ideas, and developing repeat business.
At the same time, since we’re a full-time on-site team, work life at camp tends to offer more. There has to be a “what’s in it for me?” component for the counselors, too, because they want job satisfaction and career development. This is a point that we not only recognize, but celebrate in our training at Camp Alleghany.
We work on what counselors gain personally and professionally from the experience.
Developing long term leaders
As a camp director, I explore goal setting in interviews to find the most engaged candidates, use goals in staff training to provide skills and develop leadership, and look back at goals in evaluations as a teaching moment — to see how far the counselor has come — and to provide context for the résumé.
I start with what a counselor wants to become better at during the course of the summer. This can be anything from “learning to communicate more clearly to get results,” to “finding ways to cut waste and costs in the kitchen to help both environmentally and for business purposes,” to “using compassion to help kids who are having a tough time,” to “operating as the camp’s social media and marketing person” to “getting great shots” as one of our yearly photo historians.
Goals might be in line with the counselor’s college major, a camp specialty focus, or part of a larger career goal. The goals might appear to be personal while still having a distinct skills application when looking for a job later. And all this folds into the résumé writing experience.
Telling your story
Writing my résumé was a little tough for me. I remember going to UVA’s career center when I was a student and working with a very helpful staff member. She understood the value of my camp experiences and taught me how to develop that. Writing the camp parts of my résumé ended up being the most fun and rewarding part!
I’ve often passed on my résumé to counselors who are applying for other jobs and told them they can use it as a guide for how to phrase their own camp jobs.
The résumé article, by Chris Thurber, clearly elucidates how counselors can maximize their experiences as they move to a new phase of their working life. He writes,
The truth is leadership experiences at high-quality summer camps teach life skills, and hone a work ethic that pays dividends throughout an equally demanding non-camp career.
Coach staff members to switch gears and embrace a professional presentation, not just a professional description, of their work at camp.
This has inspired me to include a résumé-writing session with the counselors this summer. This will bring to the forefront the things they’re working on personally and professionally while employed as a counselor. Perhaps it will even help them further achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves.
How camps are different
Every time we go to staff or the leadership sessions at ACA conferences it comes up — without fail — that counselors are so lucky to have the experience as a camp counselor because of the skills it teaches them that prepare them for future careers. Skills such as a strong work ethic, leadership, standing up for something that’s right but maybe not popular, time management, creativity, positive attitude, gratitude, resilience, bouncing back when things are tough, learning from mistakes, evaluating your own mistakes, learning to accept constructive feedback — the list goes on and on.
And what better place to learn these things than a loving, nurturing community?
We view our staff members as individuals on a unique life path, and we view their time at camp as more than a job. It’s also a teaching, learning, and growing context in which their overall goals are incorporated into the role they are fulfilling at camp.
Ultimately that’s so much more than your average internship offers. It may also explain why so many of our staff remain bonded with Camp Alleghany long after they’ve gone on to their subsequent careers.
–Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls