April 27, 2017
This summer I will be going back to Nobleboro, Maine to be a counselor at Camp Kieve, a three-and-a-half week wilderness tripping camp for boys and a place where I spent six years as a camper. It will be my second summer as a counselor and, following last year’s hijinks, adventures and numerous “full sends,” I am quite excited to return. What is the allure of spending an entire summer waking up at 8 in the morning, shepherding adolescents through the notoriously unpredictable mountains and waterways of Northern Maine and living largely outside of civilization? That is a query for another time. For the purpose of this article, the question is not “why” in the sense of “Why would you subject yourself to three months of that?” but rather, “Why would you subject yourself to three months of that in lieu of pursuing an internship or general resume builder while also enjoying the comforts of modern society?”
This is not a new dilemma. After all, summer camp remains a popular destination for both the youth of America who attend them and for the college-age students who often make up a majority of any given camp’s staff. The American Camp Association estimates that there are around 12,000 summer camps in the US that serve over 11 million children and adults. Even as technology consumes more of our time and attention than ever before, it is evident that the draw of spending at least a few weeks away in the wilderness during the warmer months is as strong as ever. And, since many of these operations rely on 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds to function, it is equally clear that college students are still willing to devote a large swath of their time and effort to “Maintaining A Great Atmosphere” (MAGA) at camps, despite the mounting pressure to pursue career-related activities that comes with this period in life. Again, it begs the question, “Why?”
In Dan Fleshler’s article, “The Camp Counselor vs. The Intern,” he writes of his conflicting feelings around his junior-in-college daughter’s decision to be a summer camp counselor. Despite his initial pushback, Fleshler came around to his daughter’s point of view, best encapsulated in a passage in the article that reads: “In several conversations, she told us about helping a camper cope with her mother’s debilitating depression and comforting others whose parents were fighting or separating, about aiding 11- and 12-year-olds who were coming to terms with their sexuality, battling anorexia, confronting body fear. She talked about the many hours devoted to water-skiing lessons, about instilling the confidence needed by awkward, gawky, painfully self-conscious 8- and 9-year-olds to stay prone in the water, hold on to the rope, then rise up and stay on their feet as the boat pulled away. ‘What’s more important than that?’ she asked.” Although he first worried that camp would not give his daughter the skills needed to succeed in the workplace, Fleshler realized that she was cultivating abilities that would be applicable not just in a career, but also in life. It is a profound article and one that my own camp shared with us this fall as we contemplated our plans for the coming summer.
Now that we are 537 words into this article, it is probably fair to assume that my overarching point is that anyone trying to choose between a “less prolific” summer job and a more conventionally acceptable internship should go with the former. After all, that was my thought process and decision. As tempting as it is to try to bring others to my personal viewpoint, however, I would instead argue that these choices should be just that—personal.
Rather than attempting to standardize the summer experience for college students, I would say that we should embrace the diversity of options. Among the people I have spoken to at Hamilton on this topic, the prospects for this (rapidly approaching) summer have ranged from full-on, 40-hours-per-week paid work, to a part-time job at a local grocery store, to unpaid internships at home and elsewhere, to volunteering at nonprofit organizations, to absolutely nothing at all. The theme of each? Every person was happy and excited about what they were doing (or not doing). It is those sentiments, the ones that make summer something to look forward to, that we should be encouraging, rather than the belief that one specific pursuit is better than all the others. In short, do you.
To its credit, the Career Center has largely espoused this idea. In a meeting with my Career Advisor in which I voiced some concern that another summer as a camp counselor would limit my options after college, I was somewhat surprised to hear nothing but encouragement in response. If working at camp was what I wanted I to do, then I should have no hesitation about doing it. Interests change from year-to-year and even month-to-month, and something that you found enticing one summer might not hold the same draw the next. Furthermore, there are benefits to virtually anything you could choose to do with your summer, in addition to unique skills that can be built from different fields, hobbies or occupations.
The point is that any pressure or anxiety we feel to follow a “traditional” path that theoretically puts one in the best position to succeed later in life usually does not come to bear. Show me a student who was unable to get a job because he or she did not spend their summer doing career-related work and I can give you thousands of more examples of others where it did not matter. Then again, if you really want to get started on something you think will help you after college, that is just as nice (as long as it meets the “happiness” and “excitement” criteria in some form). Especially at Hamilton, where we are consistently encouraged to experiment with classes and ideas outside of our major or minor by virtue of the open course curriculum, this should ring true.
I also realize that this idea of having a “choice” of what to do with one’s summer comes from a position of privilege. Many students do not enjoy the ability to choose between, for example, a trip abroad and the chance to shadow a law firm in New York City. Many have to return home to help out around the house, work to provide additional familial support or pay tuition costs or some other non-negotiable responsibility. At Hamilton, where we are surrounded by an incredible number of opportunities for summer pursuits, it can be easy to fall back into the assumption that everyone has equal accessibility to these windows. While that is not the case, situations where summer options are limited are not bereft of possibility. Additional time with family is almost always valuable (even though it might not feel like it at times), and jobs like landscaping, being a cashier, lifeguarding and others of this sort, while perhaps lacking in “gaudy” title, often bring with them the ability to learn practical skills and lessons not available to those free from financial or situational constraints. It might not be fair or equal, but that does not make it useless (or even impossible to enjoy).
In thinking about this topic, I am reminded of a quote from William Butler Yeats that reads, “Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.” The thought of three months away from the Hill with near-limitless possibilities and opportunities should be exhilarating, not daunting. Be an intern, a protestor, an advocate, a worker, a family helper, a do-nothing-er, a camp counselor, all of the above, none of the above or some mix of it all. Whatever it is, you should feel at peace with your decision, and happy to boot. In any case, I will not tell you what to do.