Major career lessons I learned from being a camp counselor

I was a proud camp kid: a skinny, glasses-wearing tween layered in yarn necklaces and covered in mosquito bites, singing nonsense songs so hard I lost my voice. Like the thousands of other camp kids out there, I tromped through the woods on hikes, plugged my nose as I stepped into the swimming pool, and gleefully spooned up soupy camp food in the dining hall.

There was something so magical about the camp community that was forged every summer. In those short days at camp, we all felt special. This feeling impacted me so much that a few years after “retiring” from attending camp as a camper, I followed-up with my old camp and asked to be a counselor. After some thoughtful handwritten letters, I was put in touch with an outdoor education camp (where schools send class groups up for a week of nature and nurture) for training. Lo and behold, I fell in love with that camp, too. Over the next eight years I spent hundreds of volunteer hours at both camps, even helping train new counselors.

I’m a few years removed now, and while I’ve gone on to have many other major experiences like college, marriage, and even having a baby, I still find those lessons from camp popping up on a daily basis. Here’s what I learned.

If you pretend to be confident, it can really help you be confident

One of the first lessons I was taught while going through camp counselor boot camp was not to let the kiddos know I was nervous. But was I nervous? OMG yes! Ten pairs of pre-teen eyes staring up at me, expecting leadership and guidance? Of course I was nervous. But thank goodness for my training. I referred to my binder, and totally pretended like I led friendship circles every day. And sure enough, my campers didn’t really question me. In fact, they seemed to believe in me as their leader. And if they did, why shouldn’t I? Remembering this concept has helped me in a number of scenarios, specifically job interviews, parties where I don’t know anyone, and when everyone around me is talking about Game of Thrones.

Diversity in the workplace means you have a great pool of friends later

The glorious thing about the staff groups I was a part of is that they were often very diverse, in a lot of ways – gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, you name it. And while it was great to have so many different individuals for the campers to look up to, it was also powerful for me, as a teenager, to have so many to work with. It’s easy as a high schooler to be swept up in the day-to-day of class and extracurriculars, and camp reminded me that there’s life beyond the grind. The friendships I made there also have that extra solid foundation of having seen one another trying to function in our twentieth straight hour of being awake fueled only by chips, licorice, and soda, so it’s no wonder they’ve lasted.

You’re going to do your best if you remember to be yourself

As a rookie counselor, I was wide-eyed and excited, especially because some of the same people I looked up to as a camper were still around camp. However, when I tried to emulate their leadership style, thinking that they had a better grasp of counseling than I did, I ended up awkward and stiff. Only when I started acting on my own ideas and developing my own style (which included, ahem, writing cabin cheers to the tune of Janet Jackson and the Backstreet Boys, and performing in skits inspired by Madonna and the Spice Girls, well after their prime) did I really settle into my own groove. Once I had fully grasped this idea, I was really able to support my own campers in their quest to “be yourself” at camp.

Every day is another chance for awesome things to happen

Summer camp, like committing to a Netflix binge, is just not going to work for you if your attitude isn’t in the right place. For counselors and campers alike, camp was often the highlight of the summer. Many in attendance were on a quest to fill a month, three months, or even twelve months of awesome into five very short days. There was no time for bad attitudes or homesickness, no time for timidity or hesitation. Camp was happening now, all around us, which meant it was up to us to literally sing, dance, and get involve, even if it was outside of our regular comfort zone.

Always be prepared. No, but really

There’s a reason the Boy Scouts keep coming back to this one. We’ve talked about how helpful the training weekend was, but I also learned that there’s more to preparation than just attending one session and occasionally referring to the binder someone else prepared for me. Packing for camp was one of the first times I started to think about getting as ready as possible. Not just because someone told me to, but because it made things smoother in the long run. What does being as ready as possible actually look like? Checklists. I’m talking lots of checklists, checklists of checklists, and more checklists, and then packing, re-packing, and finally double-checking everything. Once I got through with my must-haves, I then packed extras of anything that could fit in my duffel bag. Did I use everything I brought? Of course not. But did I rest slightly easier knowing it was there, just in case? Absolutely.

Everyone loses motivation. What’s important is what you do from there.

Often, there was a point during the week – usually around Thursday afternoon— when my voice would be tinged with hoarseness, when whatever caffeinated beverage I had in the dining hall at breakfast was wearing off, when I was changing in and out of the same two pairs of muddy shorts all day, and running on four hours of sleep for the fourth eventful day in the row. As you can imagine, this is when my motivation would at a low ebb. And, as nice as it would be to say that in those rough moments, there was always a cheerful camper bounding over to share a sweet moment and cheer me up, I have to admit that it wasn’t always the case (those moments aren’t always scheduled as conveniently as we’d like them to be). During those rough times, I saw firsthand that sometimes, you really have no other choice but have to dig deep—really deep—to pull through and keep going, for the sake of everyone around you. That’s what you’re there for, right? Sometimes, it can’t come from anyone, or anywhere else. Sometimes it really is just about finding your own motivation and working with what’s in front of you.

Last but not least, some practical advice came from camp too: drink lots of water everyday, take quick showers, turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth, and seriously PLEASE recycle. Let’s leave it better than we found it, shall we?

[Images via Giphy, ]

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