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Posts for March 2017

Becoming Your Best Self: The You that Colleges Want

An unfortunate reality for kids and teens today is that the pre-college process seems to be infinite and overwhelming. Kids are specializing in certain activities at ever younger ages, attempting to demonstrate a commitment to an interest they aren’t even sure of yet, because they feel that, down the road, this dedication will be valued in the college process. Teens are continually seeking opportunities to display all-important “leadership” traits, even when the programs they are leading do not interest them, or their personalities don’t particularly lend themselves well to leadership (which is discussed in this fascinating New York Times piece, Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.) The most striking takeaway of this evolution is that kids and teens are less focused than ever on discovering who they are. Instead, during these vital developmental years, they are dedicating their efforts to becoming who they think colleges want them to be.

But here’s the thing: you can’t fake who you are – the years leading up to the admissions process are long, the admissions process is grueling, and a college will ultimately be able to sense whether a student’s passions and commitments are genuine or forced. Committing to an activity or an interest solely because it feels unique or prestigious will only hinder a child or teen’s ability to find their true passions, and hasten the burnout that all too frequently experience as a part of high school today.

That’s why, when we work with kids and teens, we always strive to identify camps or programs that will allow a child or teen to develop into the best version of themselves. We focus on fit, and find that this allows children and teens to evolve and mature as people – and after several summers and school years of discovering and exploring genuine interests in appropriate settings, these children and teens ultimately find themselves well prepared for the next stage in their lives.

As a camp counselor, I have dealt with the unfortunate difficulty that arises when a child is not in the right place. I spent one summer working at a boy’s camp with a sports-heavy program, where I lived in a bunk with the youngest boys. This camp was nurturing and well-run, the staff were well-trained, and yet, for one particular boy, the summer was a consistent challenge. He was a sensitive kid who did not like sports, did not want to play sports, and had interests that were – for an eight year old boy – eclectic (he loved hiking, nature and the arts). He had some trouble making friends with the other sports-crazed boys his age, and needed extra nurturing and attention throughout the summer to be successful. On visiting day, his parents revealed to me that the reason they had sent him to this particular camp was because they wanted him to become more competitive and assertive. Unfortunately, that is simply not how personality development works – this child missed out on the opportunity to attend a camp where he could fit in, thrive, and become more comfortable with himself; and he ended the summer as sweet, sensitive, and non-competitive as he began.

When working with high-school students, we are often asked to identify programs that will make them more compelling college candidates. However, our years of experience has taught us that there is no magical program that unlocks the doors to Harvard or Yale, or similar. Instead, summers are about exploring, discovering, and building upon genuinely held interests; and honing skills. We always place a great deal of emphasis on a teen taking ownership of their summer – if the teen is not interested in a program, they will not invest the energy needed to have a successful summer. Conversely, if a student approaches a program enthusiastically and with an open mind, they will not only get more from the program itself, but may be more willing and able to reflect and learn about themselves as people. These experiences are ultimately invaluable, and when articulated in a college essay or interview, can be hugely helpful during the college admissions process.

There was one particular story in the New York Times article mentioned above that is indicative of the benefit of valuing fit over perceived prestige. A young, introverted girl who enjoyed reading and playing cello, entered high-school and immediately felt she had to prove herself a “leader”, despite having a personality that was in no way predisposed towards traditional leadership. She attempted to change who she was, and was ultimately selected as a prestigious “freshman mentor;” however she could not sustain her position and was ultimately removed from the program because she was not outgoing enough. In her newfound afterschool free time, she began working with a genetics teacher at school – a few short years later she was academically published, received the highest scholarship her university offers, and is pursuing a two majors: biomedical engineering and cello.

You may not be a cellist or scientist; you also may not be a community leader, chess-master, musical whistler, or one of the other myriad high-schoolers who seem to have luckily stumbled upon the niche of their passion. However, if you have genuine interests and explore them earnestly, you will find that you will quickly become the most compelling – and most importantly, happiest – version of yourself. And when it’s all said and done, being yourself is more than enough.

Fifteen Years Later: It’s Time to Say Goodbye to Camp, But the Lessons Are Lifelong

There is an extremely cliché saying in the camp world: “from the outside looking in, you can’t understand it, and from the inside looking out you can’t explain it.” Camp is, and always has been, my happy place. I successfully convinced my parents to ship me off at just six years old; I had my older sisters there and I knew I would have no trouble adjusting. From the day I stepped onto the gravel, I began living ten months for two. I truly thrived at camp. I felt like I was learning so much about myself while forging friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

After my nine year career as a camper finished in 2009, I returned to camp the summer after my freshman year of college in 2013 to work as a counselor. Once again, I was hooked. I fell in love with my campers and strived to be the role model that I so looked up to as a camper. I worked at camp for the next several summers, but after the summer of 2016 ended I knew it would be hard to make coming back in 2017 a reality. I ultimately needed to focus on forwarding my career. As the summer approaches, I am facing the cold, hard truth that I will not be able to return to my happy place. However, although I’ve had to say goodbye to my summer home, camp has prepared me for this next chapter in my life more than any other experience I’ve had.

I learned so much about myself during the summer months. The freedom and independence I had as a camper allowed me to push myself outside my comfort zone to try new things. I tend to be a shy person at first, but camp has brought me out of my shell and helped develop my interpersonal skills. My experience at camp helped build my confidence and has overall helped me to find a better version of myself.

More than anything, camp has provided me with a sense of community both as a camper and counselor. I have made friends from all over the country and world – from New England to California, from England, Brazil, Australia, Mexico, and more. I keep in touch with these friends weekly if not daily. I am forever grateful for what my friends have taught me about their lives and cultures, about their experiences and what brought them to camp. Camp friends truly are the best friends – I clicked with my friends right away. It was as if we were meant to be friends my whole life but our paths had never crossed. In just two months a year of camp I have made a lifetime of memories.

In addition to the social aspect, working at camp has taught me a great deal about professionalism and the working world – skills that I’ll now need as I transition into my career. One of the most valuable lessons I learned at camp is the importance of communication. Early on I recognized that communication is vital to ensuring the well-being of the campers, and good communication is one mark of a successful administration. As a Group Leader I oversaw and managed around 15 counselors in addition to 45 campers. There were always countless things going on at any moment, and so keeping my counselors in the loop made it that much easier for the day to run smoothly. Speaking to parents and dealing with conflict resolution also furthered interpersonal skills. Because there was always so much going on at once, I learned how to prioritize and manage my time in order to make sure everything got done.

I am generally extremely reluctant to open up – I hate getting emotional. But the truth of the matter is that coming to camp meant choosing to love and care for others and choosing to be vulnerable by putting myself in situations that forced me to open up. Change is inevitable and I will miss camp every day, but knowing I can always come back, that my camp friendships are unending, and that a piece of camp will ultimately stay with me softens the blow. I may not be able to return this summer, but my heart will always be at camp.

The Open Chair: How Camps & Teen Programs Create an Inclusive Culture

Going to camp or a summer program for the first time will ideally be an exciting prospect for any child or teen. Between the incredible sports & arts activities, the beautiful waterfronts, and the zany special events, camp truly is kid-paradise. Being on a college campus or traveling to a far-off destination to explore, equals independence and exploration for teens. And yet, for many first-timers this excitement is tempered with a certain apprehension, particularly if they won’t know anyone else attending. Social alienation is a real fear for many children and adolescents (not to mention many adults), and for many the idea of going away without knowing who you will be friends with can be downright daunting. At the same time, there is a great deal of value to going to camp or a summer program without existing friends – it allows kids to learn the valuable skill of making brand new friends from scratch, while also provides them a place to grow and explore in an environment that is entirely separate from their home life.

So how do camps and programs ensure that brand new campers and attendees, who don’t know a single other child/teen at camp, will be able to make friends and feel comfortable integrating themselves into a group? At my camp, we have an open chair policy.

The open chair policy is simple: if you are sitting in a group, always leave an open chair as a standing invitation to any who may want to join. The idea behind the policy is to encourage inclusion – the need for a “stranger” to ask to join a group, carry a chair over, and potentially force the group to adjust may be enough of a detraction that some ultimately choose not to include themselves. By always leaving an open chair, the pressures associated with asking to join a group, and the logistical challenges of joining are entirely eliminated. Once that person is comfortably integrated, someone else will bring another open chair to encourage any others who may want to join.

This type of action can truly change the day of someone who is craving social inclusion but doesn’t know exactly how to go about integrating themselves. Children and teens all over the country struggle with feeling socially isolated. By creating a system designed explicitly to break down barriers to inclusion, the open chair policy can make a world of difference to a new camper or (staff member) who is longing to be included.

And of course, this spirit of inclusion can extend well beyond camp. Students at Boca Raton Community High School took a similar initiative when they founded the “We Dine Together” club, which has the simple goal of ensuring that no students are eating alone. These ostensibly “popular” students dedicate their lunch hour to making sure that those eating alone have someone to talk to – creating friendships and breaking down social barriers to create a culture of inclusion.

On teen programs, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on inclusion and integration of a group – in fact, if you ask most teen program veterans what the best part of their trip was, they will often discuss the people before they talk about the activities or places they traveled. This is because teen programs are extremely sensitive to the importance of a successful group dynamic – almost every program will begin with icebreakers and other games designed to allow the students to meet in a low-stakes and friendly atmosphere. During downtime, programs will often schedule activities so students can interact in structured environments without feeling like they need to be “invited”. By creating and stressing a culture of acceptance and inclusion, programs set a tone that the participants will pick up and build upon. Soon, the teens are the ones stressing the ideals of inclusion.

Nobody wants to be left out, and social experiences can be intimidating if you don’t know who to turn to. Luckily, camps and teen programs place an incredible emphasis on inclusion, and as a result they are able to provide a great degree of social support for those who need it. These lessons, and the experience of being a part of such an inclusive and supportive environment, will stay with children and teens through the years and will help them grow into generous and accepting adults – the kind who always leave an open chair.