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The Many Lessons of a Lifetime at Camp

By Jamie Weiss

I went to camp for 14 years. It’s an odd feeling to make that statement as it may be the first time I’ve ever used the past tense. Alas, the time has come for me to hang up my camp shirts and leave behind the magic that is summer camp. However, I’m not so sure that the magic is really ever going to leave me. It’s what I always say about summer camp: The days are long, the weeks are short, and the impact is forever.

Some may see camp as an opportunity for a child to eat as many s’mores as they want and get out of their parent’s hair. In reality, summer camp is the foundation of my very being and at the forefront of everything I do in life. I have carried with me the many lessons and memories that only a summer (or many) at camp can bring.

Let’s start from the beginning; I’ve begrudgingly had to sweep the bunk during clean ups, resolve arguments with bunkmates while living in the closest of quarters, and learn to navigate the heartbreak of losing a game of Jack’s (you get through it, I promise). Patience. Team work. Respect. At camp, these lessons are hidden in the smallest of events.

In times of doubt, as a counselor in my 20’s, when I had that little voice in my ear saying “maybe it’s time for an internship” I would think back to these lessons and remember I was exactly where I needed to be.

The leadership skills that I have developed from my time at camp will forever be invaluable. At twenty and twenty-one years old, I led a leadership program for 89 teenagers. I honestly believe I developed the leadership skills to run this program through the many opportunities that presented themselves to me throughout my years as a camper. Was it the self-confidence and dedication of organizing a bunk talent show at age eleven that led me here? Was it the determination to conquer the climbing wall that taught me resilience? It was all of the above and the culmination of every obstacle, hurdle, and triumph of my camp career.

Camp taught me about responsibility, and about learning while you lead. For the past seven years I have been lucky enough to have watched over dozens of 12-16 year olds. The job description of a camp counselor is to ensure the safety of your campers and give them the summer of their lives. However, it never really says that they will in turn change yours. The life lessons that they have imparted on me, and the trust that they put in us remains the biggest takeaway from my entire camp experience.

Camp is not just my happy place. Camp is the one place where I am fully comfortable to feel and convey any and every emotion under the sun. I went from being a shy kid leaving home for the first time, to a self-confident but still unsure teenager employed with the task of being a counselor, to a matured and forever grateful adult who knows it’s not goodbye but see you later. And it’s amazing what I’ve learned along the way.

Summers for the Soul: How Camps & Teen Programs Teach Gratitude

Each Thanksgiving we make it a point to practice and express our gratitude. From simply stating the things we are grateful for, to participating in food drives for the needy, to donating to a charitable organization on Giving Tuesday – Thanksgiving is a holiday imbued with the spirit of gratitude and charity.

For children and adolescents, this idea of gratitude – appreciating what you have, and emphasizing giving to those who have less – is not a trait that is inherently present, and is oftentimes something that must be learned. Parents consistently experience the selfish outburst of children or teens – from toddlers, to middle schoolers, even to young college students – who simply don’t realize that their outburst is selfish, and who are unable to acknowledge quite how lucky they are. And given the fact that many elementary, middle, and high schools are growing more academically rigorous – and children and teens are more scheduled than ever, being whisked from extracurricular to extracurricular during a jam-packed day – there is oftentimes little time left over to really focus on teaching a value like gratitude.

One of the countless benefits of camps and summer programs is that an emphasis on gratitude is oftentimes intrinsically emphasized in the make-up of the program. Through campfires or camp services, whether religious or non-denominational, campers are asked to reflect about the importance of values such as gratitude. They are taught to practice thinking, and oftentimes speaking on, the importance of their relationships and camp experiences, and what these mean to them. At many camps, campers will directly participate in community service projects and events – whether it’s a clothing drive, or a race to support veterans. For children and adolescents, these experiences and lessons can be hugely impactful in helping them develop into caring, empathetic, and grateful teens and adults.

Teen programs can also be a great opportunity for adolescents to really learn and practice gratitude. For many students, teen summer programs are their first experiences with living without the creature comforts they are accustomed to. Many students choose to spend their summers volunteering in developing countries and underserved communities, and the transformation that occurs on these programs is so widespread it has become something of a college-essay cliché. But there is no denying that for teens, being immersed in communities that are consistently lacking in the comforts and necessities we take for granted, can be a powerful experience in learning what it is to be grateful. Other students may choose to participate on outdoor adventure trips with rugged accommodations, and learn what it is to live without running water, without permanent shelter from the elements, or simply without a hot lunch. In either case, summer programs give teens the opportunity to immerse themselves in a life without, and they oftentimes return far more grateful for the things they do have.

Quite simply, the world could use more gratitude and goodwill. Children and teens who attend camps and summer camps develop their emotional and social skills, and learn the importance of truly human values like gratitude. And an opportunity to learn these valuable lessons – to be immersed in environments that emphasize and value traits like gratitude, is one of the greatest and most transformative gifts a summer can bring.

The Long-term Value of Maintaining Off-Season Summer Relationships

The late fall and early winter frequently mark the time of year that camps begin holding organized reunions or get-togethers for current campers. Among the lifelong benefits of attending overnight camps or teen programs are the incredible friendships that children and teens are able to make. Summer relationships are unique due to the circumstances of a camp or program – kids and teens are in extremely close proximity, living and spending almost all waking hours together. These relationships also develop exceptionally quickly – oftentimes kids and teens show up as total strangers, and within days feel like best friends. And while these friendships are oftentimes a staple of a successful summer, that doesn’t mean they need to be limited to the summer season – and placing a priority on these outside of summer will ultimately serve your children or teens well in the long run.

The Short-Term Benefits of Summer Friends

For campers, attending camp reunions and get-togethers can help ease the transition back to camp each summer. Kids return with confidence knowing that they’ve had positive interactions with camp friends since last summer, and this reduces any anxiety your returning camper might have about fitting in at camp. It also gives a shared experience that campers can fall back on early in the summer when they are re-navigating the social waters. And for children and teens of all ages, there is real value to having a group of friends who are completely separated from school and home life –it broadens a child or teen’s perspective to have summer-friends who may come from all over the country or the world, and these friends can provide meaningful support to a child or teen who needs a break from the school-year social world they inhabit.

While teen programs are less likely to organize formal reunions, the benefits of maintaining summer relationships are widespread and tangible for teens. Once a student has outgrown camp, they will not be able to return to the formal structure of a daily summer network of “camp friends” that they have grown up with – but there is still value in spending time away from home friends. Camp and teen program alumni who maintain these friendships have a built-in network of people they can reach out to if they want to go on another program with a friend who they don’t go to school with. These friends make the perfect program or travel companions, because teens are already used to living with them in the close quarters of a camp or teen program, and have had success in this situation before. And while some students are comfortable attending a program alone, others will feel more comfortable – and thus will be able to be more socially successful – if they attend with a friend.

College and Beyond

Summer friends also make great college roommates, especially freshman year. If you’re going to a school where you don’t know anyone – or you want to ensure that you don’t have the exact same friends in college as you did in high-school – then reaching out to a friend from camp or a teen program is a great way to ensure you’ll have a roommate you like, without relying on somebody you know from home. Given how well they know you, summer friends can also recommend a great roommate or friend who will be attending your school. Once again, the close proximity that you experienced in camp or on a teen program will likely provide a good foundation for your relationship as college roommates – after all sharing a dorm-room is nothing compared to sharing a camp cabin or tent. And not only does this provide you with a friendly roommate – it can open your social sphere to any other friends your roommate has at school.

And this idea of a broadening network inevitably extends beyond school, and will help your child in the long run. As your children and teens grow, their friendships will also contribute to their professional networks, and the unique shared experience of a summer at camp or on a teen program is a wonderful foundation for a connection. Whether your child or teen grows into an entrepreneur looking for a start-up partner, or a hopeful job-applicant looking for a current employee’s recommendation – by maintaining and strengthening relationships with their friends from camps and teen programs, your child will set themselves up to have valuable friendships grow into vital professional relationships.

When selecting a camp or pre-college program for your child or teen, you are hopefully placing them in an environment where they will be able to make deep, meaningful, lifelong friendships. In order to maximize these friendships – by staying close with summer friends beyond the summer season – it is valuable for your child or teen to maintain communications. So encourage them to share e-mail addresses and phone numbers and stay in contact with their summer friends – you never know when life will bring you together again.

Learning To Lose: Life Lessons Learned At Camp

Growing up as a camper, there were always multiple day-long athletic intercamps scheduled with our “rival” camp throughout the course of the summer. If we were visiting – we would board the bus after breakfast, play a few games, share lunch with our opponents, and play a few more sports in the afternoon. And if we were hosting, we were simply spared a bus ride, and had the opportunity to eat in the comfort of our dining hall. And throughout my years of camp, it seemed that almost every time we played, and in almost every sport, we would eventually emerge victorious.

Until, of course, we didn’t.

One inevitable lesson any long term camper will learn, is that they simply aren’t going to win every time. I poured my heart and soul into every Color War growing up, and on more than one occasion it simply wasn’t enough. When we played our rival camp in basketball or lacrosse – my favorite sports in my adolescent and teen years – we always entered with the confidence that we would win the game. But on more than one occasion, we ultimately had to reconcile ourselves with the fact that this confidence was misplaced. I even vividly recall being eliminated from a game of Risk that I played over the course of many rest hours, after an alliance of mine broke down and I found myself spread too thin.

And while it may seem cliché, each of these losses taught me something. I learned that no matter how confident you are, when it comes time to perform you need to put your best effort forth. And I learned that sometimes, your best effort isn’t enough, and this is okay too. I learned that you can compete ferociously against someone in the morning, and buddy up with them during Free Swim in the afternoon. I’ve learned that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that you can ultimately be forgiven by your teammates even when you slip up. I’ve learned that it’s worthwhile to invest hours of time and brainpower into a game with friends, even if you ultimately fall short.

And I learned plenty about resilience. I learned that there is always another game or another season. I learned that there is a place for disappointment, and also a place for getting back to practice. I learned about being gracious in defeat – and I learned how good it feels to rebound with a hard-earned victory.

I truly belief this resilience is a life skill, and one that many children and teens today are lacking. In the “participation trophy” culture of youth, I feel that it’s important to note that many of my most strident memories of camp came in defeat – and that these have shaped me as a person as much as my memories of victory (if not more). At camp, I learned to lose – and ultimately, that was one of the greatest victories I won.

Summarizing Your Summer: Avoiding College Essay Clichés

“On the volunteer trip I took, I realized that not everybody is as fortunate as me. The local people we met didn’t have many of the things we take for granted, but they were still so happy. It was an inspirational experience that totally changed my perspective.”

Have you heard this story before? It is among the most common of Common App responses.

This year, like every year, thousands of admissions officers across the country will read thousands of essays about the volunteering trip a given prospective applicant took to South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, or Africa. They will also read about how camp taught a given student about leadership, and how winning their final Color War was emblematic of their growth over time. These students, like generations of applicants before them, had incredible summer experiences that they want to write about. Unfortunately, they are not alone, and many of the essays that feel most compelling to an individual can come across as trite or clichéd to a committee that has to process thousands of applications – especially when they’ve just read several very similar submissions that happen to take place in slightly different settings.

Summer is an incredible time for having the experiences you will ultimately write about in your college essays. During summer, students try new things and learn new skills. They explore new places and meet new friends. Summer is when interests evolve into passions, and when new passions are born. And when children and teens hopefully challenge themselves. There is a vital aspect to the story above – for many students, it is entirely true. There is a reason this essay topic has become a cliché – for many students, age-appropriate teen programs represent the first exposure to life outside of their bubble. These students did have a transformative experience – this developed perspective is one of the major benefits of attending a teen program of this type. Similarly, camp does help kids grow and mature, develop community, and ultimately take on leadership roles – after all, there is a reason parents send their kids to camp summer after summer.

The issue, however, is that when a student describes these shared experiences in a college essay, they do so in a way that causes them to blend into, rather than stand out from, the rest of the application pool – and if they leave an impression, it very well might be negative. Of course, this doesn’t mean that students should avoid writing about their summer experiences – summer can provide incredible fodder for essays. In fact, I wrote my own Common App essay on an experience I had on a teen program. However, your approach must be crafted to avoid the pitfalls of cliché, and to focus on a student’s unique experience, and a student’s unique development. So what can you do to avoid a clichéd essay?

In short, you must tell your own story – and the emphasis should be on yourself, not your program. It’s not about the building project you worked on with twenty, thirty, or forty other teens – but about the one real relationship you forged with someone who was scheduled to move in once construction was completed. Not about the class you taught in English, but about how you earned a nickname from the students. Not about the coursework you did, but about the street food you sampled. Your story may not have an entirely unique arc or trajectory, but it is still a unique story. You need to use your essay to highlight the aspects that make it unique.

And, if you want your words to stand out, then back them up. Did teaching children open up your eyes about the need to give back? Then sign-up for one of the many child-centric volunteering opportunities that are available. Did you have an incredible, transformative experience growing up at camp? Perhaps you can work as a CIT, or get involved in a Campership program. Did that street food expose you to the variance in global cuisine? Maybe it’s time to start a food blog. Your college essay is an opportunity to write about something meaningful – and if your summer experience was truly meaningful to you, it won’t be limited solely to one summer.

There is nothing wrong about wanting to write about your camp or summer program in your college essay – these are oftentimes powerful experiences that really do reflect the individual a student has grown into. However, be careful when composing your essay that you deal in the truths and details of your story, rather than falling into the trap of relying on broad clichés regarding personal growth and development. You have a story to tell – make sure it’s about you, and that it’s one worth reading.

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