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College Students Cashing In as Camp Counselors

Camp Counselor Growth

By: Kerrigan Stern

As the winter season gradually comes to a close, the prospect of summer camps for children looms on the horizon. Maryland, with an impressive 455 programs, hosts various camps for neighborhood children in areas across the state—providing not only a fun summer for kids but employment opportunities for young adults as well. 

A large portion of these young adults is college students looking to occupy a much-needed summer break. As they face the daily pressures of college life, returning to childhood for a few months is a temptation that many students nationwide, including those who reside internationally, choose to take advantage of—and the leaders of camps around the country are welcoming them with open arms.

 “Hiring a college-age camp counselor is appealing because most have had the opportunity now to live on their own and face the challenges that life brings,” says Grant Larson, the summer director at Camp Wabanna. “College-age counselors have the benefit of having all of their high school years behind them. Having made mistakes or had successes that they have now been able to reflect on, and see areas where they grew…is a helpful perspective when counseling junior high and high school-age campers.”

Becoming Role Models

And as camp leaders like Larson know, the pressures of camp can make diamonds. According to fellow Camp Director Liz Heilbronner of Camp Horizons, LC, a college-age counselor fulfilling the role of exemplar helps mature campers during their summer. “The ideal camp counselor is someone who is passionate about being outside, working with kids, and impacting lives.,” she says. “We have found that young adults fit this mold perfectly, as they are more mature than the campers they oversee, have a desire to teach youth what they know, and love to be seen as a role model.” 

Krista DeLone, Retreats and Teen Leadership Assistant Director for YMCA Camp Tockwogh, agrees. “Having a role model for our campers that’s different from their parents is really awesome for kids. When it comes from a college-age kid or someone closer to their age, it’s way more appealing and can make such a bigger difference in a kid’s life.”

The counselors themselves can also see the positive impact they’re having on their campers. “At school, I am solely responsible for my own success and my own life, whereas at camp I feel aware of how much of an impact I can have on impressionable young girls,” says Isabelle Dyson, a fifth-year counselor at Camp Conowingo. “I feel infinitely more responsible for what I may be teaching them, rather than in school [where] I am more responsible for my own education.”

Being able to teach campers these kinds of lessons in an exciting way is a central ability that makes college-age employees so enticing. DeLone’s coworker Brenn McCans, Waterfront Assistant Director, sees these counselors as a lively positive force that makes camp such an exhilarating experience. “College-age kids are really passionate and they’re creative and they’re not jaded yet. They have this ‘I can change the world’ attitude and that type of passion and excitement for things…is kind of what makes camp so magical for our campers,” says McCans. 

International Viewpoints

While its programs alone are intended to blossom the campers, YMCA Camp Tockwogh also provides the participants, and the counselors, with the opportunity to see a worldview far different from their own “We have a ton of counselors internationally. We hire from the UK, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland. We hire from Spain, Columbia, Dominican Republics, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Poland, Hong Kong, Germany, all of these places,” says McCans. “And to be able to interact with these people and talk to them about how they live their lives and their experiences and their opinions…[is] very eye-opening for kids of that age.” 

Befriending these international students, many of whom the counselors stay in contact with after camp ends, is just one of camp’s developing experiences that counselors benefit from. “Studies from the American Camp Association have shown that being a camper or counselor has great impacts on people. Not only do they gain independence by being away from home or college, but they learn teamwork skills by sharing a cabin with others, learn problem-solving skills by working in a close-knit environment, and experience a life-changing summer,” says Heilbronner.

DeLone concurs, highlighting the development college-age counselors experience while at camp. ”The growth that they have while they’re here and the confidence that they gain and feeling like they can go and make an impact in other places as a result of how they were here…That’s really hard for a college kid to find anywhere else,” says  DeLone. 

Being Yourself

But the benefits of camp aren’t secluded to all the growth opportunities; it’s also a place where counselors and campers alike can just be themselves. “There’s just things that aren’t necessarily so cool outside of camp that kids have the opportunity to express themselves [with] here,” according to DeLone. “I think that our staff especially really embraces individuality, and then they pass that onto our campers. They make it cool to be weird, especially in a society that tries to fit everyone in like one sort of stereotype. Just allowing our counselors and our campers [to have] the space to be creative, be themselves is so important.”

“Being a camp counselor has taught me a lot about being in touch with my inner child, as well as remembering to try and enjoy myself. I love going back and being able to see how much of an impact I can have on others, and be a good role model for kids as they’re growing,” recollects Dyson. 

Luckily, witnessing and embodying this self-growth doesn’t have to be  a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In fact, these camps are eager to see their college-age counselors return for another season. “Each year we average about a 45-55% return rate. Counselors usually have 3-year rotations so some years we might have less returners,” detailed Heilbronner. “We hope that our counselors will go back into their worlds feeling energized and excited about the future. We always say that we don’t want to try and change the world, just our corner of it. The great thing is that when our counselors leave our corner, they are going out into the world with that desire to make a difference.” 

And as they expand their worldview, counselors like Dyson can find a home away from home. “In a time that had a lot of transitions, it was awesome to be able to have a place that was safe and comfortable to return to every summer,” she says. “Even when I did not know what I wanted to do with my life next, I knew I always had a place at Conowingo.” 

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