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Summering With an Open Mind: Passion, Discovery, and the College Admissions Process

“What are your passions?”
The answer to this question seems to be the new key to the increasingly competitive college admissions process. While well-roundedness was once considered the strength of a student’s profile, the tides have shifted and a demonstrated depth of interest in one area now supersedes the widespread dabbling that used to fill high-school resumes. And, because students’ school-year schedules are often stacked with AP classes, varsity practices, dress rehearsals, and several hours of homework, there is often little time during the school for a student to really explore their interests and learn about what resonates with them.

Which is why summer – those blissful two months set firmly outside the high-school curriculum – is the perfect time for students to explore. Recently, Quartz published an article quoting Everything Summer’s Jill Tipograph that discusses the lengths to which some students will go to discover their passions over the summer, and the desire to translate this experience into a captivating college essay. And at Everything Summer, we certainly believe that a well-designed summer can allow students to explore interests in a way that supplements their rigorously structured school year – in fact this belief is at the core of what we do.

However, while, in Jill’s words “the outcome optimally would be better preparedness for college and the admissions process”, this does not mean that a summer experience should be a passion shopping spree in which students arbitrarily seek out niche experiences that will stand out on a resume or in an essay. In fact, an experience that is sought solely for admissions purposes may not translate to a captivating essay, as a student who made the decision purely for admissions-based reasons will have a hard time articulating why they chose a certain route, and what truly interests them about their supposed passion.
Instead, a summer experience must be chosen because – above all – it will allow a student to further explore a subject or area that already interests them, and, crucially, this must be approached with an open mind. According to Jill, “the summer should be about self-discovery, passion, broadening horizons, and getting out of your comfort zone”. And it is vital to note that part of this self-discovery may involve a student realizing that they are ultimately not passionate about something that interests them, a realization that can ultimately lead to the discovery of a true passion.
As an avid lacrosse player in high-school, I spent the entire summer after my sophomore year attending lacrosse camps as I sought to further my interest in the game and potentially be recruited to play in college. And after a summer filled with nothing but lacrosse, I was, quite simply, tired. While I certainly liked the game – and I had been playing for multiple years at this point – this further exposure led me to realize that perhaps I didn’t want to play in college, and that I may want to explore other interests. The next summer, I did not continue my investment in lacrosse in an effort to force a passion where none existed – instead, I took an educational trip to Europe to study Roman Archaeology and Art History, and in the process, by chance, I discovered improv comedy and theatre.
I have not played lacrosse since high-school. And while I am still fascinated with art history and the classical world, I would not necessarily describe these interests as passions. However, theatre and improv are both interests that I have continued to invest in, because they are interests that speak to me on a deeper level. I wrote my college essay, honestly, about my discovery of improv and the road I took to get there – and fortunately, I was accepted to my first-choice school. I received my degree in theatre, and have participated in productions both during and after college.
While my experiences with theatre and improv have opened many doors for me, I did not explore these interests in order to secure college admission – on the contrary, I stumbled upon them entirely by accident. However, the fact that I was open to exploring interests outside my predetermined niche, and the fact that I was honest about what truly captivated me and what was simply interesting, was ultimately what allowed me to find a true passion. And so, as high-school students strive to find themselves in time to write their college essay, I would encourage them to search for passion, but not to force it. The self-discovery of a well-planned summer will make you a strong candidate, and a more mature individual – and eventually your passion will come to light.


No Phone, No Problem: How Tech Free Summers Aid Youth Development

The Washington Post recently published a riveting profile of 13 year-old Katherine Pommerening; a girl, like many her age, who is inextricably linked to her cell phone. While reading this piece, I was struck by a core difference between the approach to technology that Katherine and her fellow members of Generation Z have, and the relationship that my friends and I had to technology a decade earlier. When I was growing up I certainly played my fair share of video games, and watched plenty of television – however, the core difference was that time was clearly delineated between when we were using technology and when we weren’t. When the game was done or the show was over, we stepped away. Today, however, the link between student and cell phone is almost unbreakable – with the constant opportunity that portability presents, students no longer learn to live without checking their various social media platforms, scouring the internet for likes. Until, of course, they get to camp.

One of the defining differences between camp and the outside world lies in a simple policy that is the norm at most traditional summer camps: no electronics – and there are obvious benefits to the break from technology that camp enforces. When validation does not come from a well-lit photo and a catchy caption, campers are forced to interact with each other in meaningful ways in order to obtain the social validation that we all seek. It is no surprise that so many children find their best friends at camp, as camp is the environment that allows them to forge meaningful interpersonal relationships. The environment at camp allows campers to develop their conversational skills and emotional intelligence, which will benefit them in the long run. In fact, according to a recently published New York Times Article, kids who spent even a short period without technology will develop a greater understanding of interpersonal communication. If coexisting in the bunk becomes a challenge there is no ‘block’ button – campers learn to resolve their disputes and live together, simply because they are put in a position where they have to. Counselors at times play mediator, as may be needed; but it is the campers who need to problem solve.

The lack of technology also helps campers live in a present moment without worrying about the very real anxiety produced by superficial concepts of perfection that are often pushed on social media. In the Washington Post article, Katherine talks about how if a picture or post isn’t well-received, she will delete it. The unspoken truth is this: only the most manicured, perfectly planned versions of a person are good enough – human imperfections simply aren’t an option. At camp, however, this microscope is more or less eliminated. Without a camera phone, the perfect selfie is no longer an option, and so the perfect make-up, hairstyle, and clothing are no longer necessary. In fact, many camps even have a required uniform which further reduces the social value of clothing or personal presentation. The outcome? Kids can learn who they are without worrying how they are perceived. Camp is, at its core, a place where kids can be sweaty or muddy, and where a juice stain is nothing more than proof of hydration. It is, in short, a place where kids can be kids.

It goes without saying that technology has become an inextricable aspect of day-to-day life for kids and adults alike, and that is not changing. However, there are very real consequences to the persistent pervasion of electronics in our day to day lives, particularly as it pertains to child development. Camp is one of the last havens of childhood, where kids can learn what it’s like to exist with one another. While they may not be foregoing their phones anytime soon, a summer at camp will help them learn to live without, and will help them go a long way in relearning what it means to be a child or young teen.


Learned Independence: The Things We Pick Up at Camp

Why would a loving mother voluntarily send her child to summer camp for a whole summer?

Throughout my life, my mother has always been, to put it lightly, a constant presence. Since I was a child in school I have been the beneficiary of daily interrogations and not-always-solicited advice. Throughout college my friends joked that they had never met anyone who talked to their parents as much as I did while my mother lamented that I never called, and it’s more likely than not that my phone will buzz even as I write this blog.

And while this communication isn’t particularly abnormal (and is something I am usually grateful for), it does beg one paradoxical question: How did a mother with the impulse to constantly communicate send her children to sleepaway camp for summers at a time? The distance from Florida to Maine is more than a stone’s throw, two 10-minute phone calls cannot span the distance of the Atlantic Coast, and I frequently addressed my required letters to our family’s dogs. So how did this uniquely attached mother of three part with her children for 3.5 to 7 weeks each summer? Quite simply, she thought it was best for us. And as a somewhat seasoned camp veteran who has experienced summer camp as both a camper and counselor, I’d have to agree with her.

Of course there is the independence factor, one that has been emphasized and eloquently stated in several other articles: children who go to sleepaway camp learn to coexist and cohabitate with others which serves them throughout life, particularly as college freshmen (and even upperclassmen). And this is very true. However, one aspect of the independence that I believe is understated is the things kids learn to do on their own because of sleepaway camp.

They learn to make friends by themselves. Last summer, on a rainy day in mid-June, I consoled a crying eight year old who felt homesick and alone on his first day of camp. When I suggested he try to make some friends at camp, he responded “I don’t know how, my mom always makes playdates”. Within two weeks he had found a best friend who had been a stranger in the springtime.

They learn to make plans. I definitely grew up in the playdate generation – parents made plans with other parents to determine the precise time and location of childhood mingling – and this schema for socialization hasn’t changed much in the past two decades. But at camp? Campers plan board game excursions during rest hour, and basketball games during free play. They make plans that are completely untenable and plans that they will forget an hour later, but they learn to navigate the concept of “let’s do something”, and begin to figure out a framework for making their ideas possible.

They learn to maintain relationships. When your best friend is hundreds of miles away for ten months a year, you learn to develop the ability to forge friendships that can span the distance. This is different for different people – in some cases, it means calling (or texting, probably – for me it was AIM) on a daily or nightly basis. For others, it’s the simple ability to rekindle a ten-month dormant friendship as if a day hasn’t even passed. Children who attend camp learn what it is to feel the presence of someone who isn’t always present, and this will serve them well as they grow older and their worlds expand.

And they learn to say goodbye. Perhaps the most difficult part of one’s camp experience lies in the simple fact that it ultimately comes to an end. You cannot be a camper forever. Through their summers at camp, children learn what it is to love a place, cherish it, and step away when the time comes. They will learn to hold memories in their hearts, and how to continue to grow as they say goodbye to a home away from home. This skill – the ability to love something to the fullest and eventually let it go – is one that will carry your child throughout their life, and one that will ultimately help them develop the empathy and emotional understanding that is crucial to human relationships.
These tools stay with children throughout their lives, and the development at camp helps shape them into the people they will become. I certainly missed my family while I was away – and moreover, my family certainly missed me. But at the end of the day, my experience at camp – like that of so many others – was worth every minute and every summer. And as it would happen, my mother agrees.


Narrowing the Gap: How Time Off Helps Students Transition from High School to College

When Malia Obama recently announced that she would be attending Harvard, most of the conversation centered not upon where she was furthering her education, but what she would be doing beforehand. While the American public hasn’t been briefed on the specifics of the Malia’s plans – that is a First-Family matter after all – it was recently reported that our Commander In Chief’s eldest daughter will be taking a gap year before matriculating. And by all accounts, this is a very good decision.

While I cannot say I have ever had the pleasure of meeting Malia (or any relative of any US President to my knowledge), I do know many, many people who have taken time off before or during college. And by and large, almost without exception, they were better off for it. The Washington Post recently published an article detailing the specific benefits of the gap year. According to this article, students who take a gap year are 75 percent more likely to be ‘happy’ or ‘extremely-satisfied’ with their careers post-college. Furthermore, a certain liberal arts school in Vermont, one that actually has a gap semester built into its curriculum for about one hundred students per year, found that students who take a gap year also tend to outperform their peers both academically and extracurricularly.

And this makes sense. Students generally complete high school at eighteen years of age after a scholastic lifetime of prescribed courses. They generally have little experience with independent living or independent decision making, a murky idea of their academic interests and passions, and a startling instinct to seize their newfound freedom by acting as recklessly and immaturely as possible. In short, they are eighteen years old. And I understand this, in fact I was eighteen years old too, once. And like many other eighteen year olds, I was simply not as intellectually and socially mature as I would eventually be.

During my Freshman year, I decided that I was going to pursue an English Literature and Art History double major. I liked literature, I liked paintings, and so the choice was clear. Right? Four years later, when I received my diploma, neither of those disciplines were my intended choice of study. In fact, the only reason I never needed to formally change my major was because I never got around to initially filing the required paperwork. I was fortunate enough to attend a liberal arts college that valued academic exploration, and so I was not bound to my eighteen-year-old self’s prosaic, art historical academic determinations. Eventually, I discovered a major that stimulated and challenged me in ways I’d never before encountered. (This major was theatre, much to my parents’ dismay, but that is another story for another day).

And I was not alone in my indecision – according to the Washington Post article referenced above, the average student takes about six years to complete their college education. Many times, this extended foray into higher education is a result of very specific requirements for very specific courses of study – so if a student decides that they might not want to be a doctor after all, their pre-med classes will not contribute to their newfound political science major. And as college tuition figures are continuing to soar, this academic meandering presents a largely inefficient, impractical, and sometimes impossible path to self-discovery. The remedy? A gap year in which students can explore their interests and themselves outside the annual five-figure halls of academia.

And from a social standpoint? Well, I actually attended the aforementioned liberal arts school in Vermont. And when the “Febs” arrived at Middlebury, a half-semester behind their classmates and yet a half-semester wiser, the difference was notable. They were generally comfortable with themselves, and they were often adventurous. While many freshmen were still grappling with the newfound freedom of dorm life, these students had traveled to Southeast Asia or studied in pre-revolutionary Syria. Some had simply stayed home and worked, learning what it was like to earn a day’s wage in an office. Many arrived at school with a sense of self that extended beyond the classroom, the music hall, or the lacrosse field, which is both significant and surprisingly rare. Regardless of how they spent their time, they had almost unanimously undertaken responsibilities that extended well beyond the making of a microwavable macaroni and cheese – in short, their semester off had been time well spent, and many carried this momentum through college.

This isn’t to say that in order to be successful a student needs to take time off. There are many capable students who can navigate the transition to college immediately after high school, who can undergo the process of self-discovery within the world of academia. However, there are a myriad of advantages to taking time off before or during college. A gap experience is a path that should be seriously considered by the students who are prepared to embark on the next stage of their life. And if I could do it all again? I think I’d join Malia.


Necessary Independence: The Power of a Summer Sans-Parents

For many of the thousands of children who will be leaving the familiarity of home to attend overnight camp for the first time this summer, there will be an adjustment to living without many of the comforts that define twenty-first century childhood. For the first time, many of these children will be living without iPads or without cellphones. Perhaps they will experience life without electricity or air conditioning, or without a bathroom comfortably attached to their room. The list goes on, and it is the absence of many of these elements that makes camp such a unique place for child development. However the most notable absence for most (if not all) of these children will also be the most difficult to adjust to, and the most crucial to their development. For the first time, these campers will be living without their parents.

The Washington Post recently published an article detailing six ways in which good and well-intentioned parents contribute to their children’s anxiety. Many parents today are hyper-aware of the needs or wants of their child, and are hyperactive when it comes to doing whatever it takes to cater to those desires. These parents quickly apply a Band-Aid at the sight of any scratch, expeditiously engage a tutor at the first sign of a ‘C’, and promptly prepare an e-mail if a child is the object of bullying or mistreatment at school.

However, an unintended consequence of this love and attention is that it can prevent children from learning how to advocate for themselves. I personally grew up with a mother who was ready to storm into battle at the first sign of injustice, and as a result the easiest course of action when I was displeased was, quite simply, to tell mom. Unfortunately that simple solution was not sustainable – my mother wasn’t going to talk me into already-full classes in college, she wasn’t going to reconcile disputes between myself and my closest friends, and she wasn’t going to confront my bully of a neighbor who perceives the sound of an electric toothbrush as an affront to his peace and tranquility. As I grew older, I needed to learn how to advocate for myself, how to determine when frustration is justified, and how to handle my own disappointments. And my foundational experiences with these lessons were learned out of necessity – they were learned because I was at camp, and my parents were not.

Summer camp is a safe, protected environment. For each child there is a network of staff members and a leadership team determined to ensure that the summer is a positive experience, and a camp director is within easy reach. However, as children adjust to group living, they will inevitably encounter some conflict – perhaps a friend will sit on their bed without asking, or they will not be selected for a baseball tournament, or maybe they’ll just miss home. And there will certainly be an adjustment period for a child who has, thus far, spent a lifetime relying on their parents. However, as a child learns to live without, they will grow within – they will learn to settle disputes, to communicate their disappointments, and to advocate for themselves within a community. They will become more independent and self-assured, and better equipped to handle the pitfalls and problems that life throws their way. They will accomplish all of this simply because they have to – and this is the power of a summer spent without parents.


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