Opinion | Working as a camp counselor helped me grow as a person

A+hiker+enjoys+the+view+at+Mount+Rainier.

Image via Ivie Metzen, Wikimedia Commons

A hiker enjoys the view at Mount Rainier.

By Rachel Soloff, Senior Staff Columnist

Last year was difficult. I struggled immensely with my mental health as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, and I felt like I had lost myself. As an extroverted person, the isolation I felt sent me to one of the lowest points in my life.

After this difficult year of isolation, I decided to go to a place that was almost the exact opposite of my sad and lonely apartment — summer camp. And no, not as a camper, but as a counselor.

Working as a camp counselor pushes you out of your comfort zone, and there is no job on earth like it. Being a counselor last summer allowed me to be a mentor — something that is definitely not what I’m used to — and helped me be a more confident person even outside of the camp bubble. 

I went to overnight camp in the Poconos every summer from age eight to 15, and it completely changed my life. I experienced immense growth, largely because of the mentoring of my counselors who always encouraged us to push through challenges and be our true selves. So as soon as I was able to, I applied to be a counselor at the camp I grew up with. My first year on staff, the summer before my first year at Pitt, I was super nervous. The camp placed me with a younger group of kids than I wanted and struggled with finding the balance between being the authority figure and being the fun counselor.

Last summer was different. After a full two years without camp in my life — it closed due to the pandemic in summer 2020 — I was ready to get back into it. My campers this summer were going into ninth grade and, based on my previous experience, I finally felt confident enough to mentor these kids just like my counselors had seven years prior. I also felt like I had the opportunity to be a great mentor to these kids as they entered a pivotal time in their lives.

Similar to me, these kids had just done two years of online school. Now, they were going from the complete isolation of their homes to being in a bunk with 40 other people. For some, this was difficult. At the beginning of camp, I frequently found myself sitting with campers who felt overwhelmed and overstimulated. 

During lunch on the first day of the second session of camp, I caught the eye of a camper who I could just tell was on the verge of tears. I went outside with her and we chatted for a long time. She confided in me that she was extremely nervous for camp, even though she had gone for many years. She told me that after a full two years away from camp and mostly being with her family, she struggled to transition back. 

As I sat there listening to her, I was immediately brought back to my own experience, five weeks prior when I arrived at camp for staff week. I totally felt the overwhelming feeling she talked about. I also got thrown into the mix of camp, training with people I hadn’t seen in two years and interacting with the most amount of people I had in 18 months.

Instead of instinctually putting on a front and telling her that everything was going to be okay, I was honest. I told her about my struggles at the beginning of camp and how I adjusted. This was my first real feeling of growth. After 18 months where I felt like I had to keep my guard up and try to avoid the negative emotions I struggled with, I confided in her. As I spoke with her, I could see the worry ease and, although she did have an adjustment period, by the end of the summer she had the time of her life.

Camp not only mentally pushed me out of my comfort zone, it also did so physically. Every summer the campers who are going into eighth grade go on a 10-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail. When I was a camper, I had the most miserable time on this hike and was so glad that I never had to do it again. Unfortunately for my campers and myself, because my campers had missed this hike the previous year, we had to go on it this summer. As soon as I heard this, my stomach dropped. I dreaded this hike, but I couldn’t wuss out because I was the one in charge this time. 

This hike ended up being the highlight of my summer. I hiked along with some campers from the other bunk who I hadn’t talked to much that summer. We talked about music, movies and everything under the sun. Those 10 miles flew by with ease, and I couldn’t believe it. When we got back from the trail, my co-counselor, who had also been a camper with me during my hike from hell eight years ago, told me how proud she was of me of how I handled myself on the hike. We both couldn’t believe that the girl who cried the entire 10 miles eight years prior was smiling and enjoying herself. 

Being a camp counselor may seem daunting because you often have to think on your feet and react quickly when things don’t go according to plan, but this kind of thinking leads to great opportunities. As a counselor, I wrote the evening programs. We could get as creative and out there as possible, just as long as the campers had fun. One of the evening programs I wrote this summer was a slam poetry night. Typically, two or more counselors write the programs but for this one I was on my own. I was extremely nervous about this program — I am not really one to stand in front of a crowd. 

Immediately, something went wrong. I tried to show my campers an example of a poem and my speaker wouldn’t connect. I went instantly into panic mode and tried to pivot the program. The pivot did not work so I had to adapt a third time. This time, however, I took a step back, realized that in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t a big deal and moved on. Once I did, the program ended up being one of the campers’ favorite evening programs we did all summer, and I once again surprised myself with how I handled the situation.

Being a camp counselor is not a typical job — you wear funny outfits, sing songs and plan slam poetry nights for a bunch of 14-year-olds. The skills I learned from doing this silly and unconventional job, though, are ones that are applicable everywhere, especially in regards to mentorship. By helping these campers have their best summer ever and being a mentor for them just as my counselors were for me, I truly felt myself grow in ways in which I hadn’t before. Camp is a magical place and its magic made me become a better version of myself. 

Keep an eye out for your own magical place. Sometimes, finding a job that allows you to grow within it is more important than finding one that you think you need to get for the sake of your  resume.

Rachel Soloff writes primarily about the entertainment industry and social justice. Write to her at [email protected].

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