During the second semester of his senior year (4 years ago), I asked my son Liam whether he had a case of “senioritis”. He responded that he did not like being idle and that high school did not provide the same challenge that it once had. He even suggested that he would not mind a little more homework (yeah, I gasped too).
With that, I asked him if he would be interested in writing an article about camp.
“Sure, what is the title?”
“How about ‘how camp prepared me for college?”
“I’ll think about it,” was his reply.
Four hours later, he sent me the following article.
I hope you enjoy it.
“How camp prepared me to leave home and thrive in college.”
My tranquil coast through the second semester of my senior year is only occasionally interrupted by the sickening realization that my decisions are about to truly become my own. As I stand at the exit of secondary education, I wonder how I can translate what I have already experienced in my live to an unknown entity of profound knowledge mixed with stupidity – also known as college.
I share many commonalities with the average teen and ask the same kind of questions as I prepare to leave the nest: Can I survive the new level of academia? What about the changing social environment? Roommates? Parental separation? (Although this one is frequently a relished opportunity by many.) What about a sense of identity? The answer to all those questions I’ve found in summer camp. Now I may be slightly, or more likely grossly bias towards summer camp as the answer. I have lived on one my entire life and have been listening to the gospel of 21st century skills and disruptive moments since I learned what the 21st century actually entails. Despite my bias, camp is still the ultimate college prep for everything non academic (and arguably some academia)... and I can prove it.
In order to understand my analysis of college preparedness, one must have a basic understanding of “disruptive moments” and personal narratives. For all those who grasp this concept clearly, or are avid readers of Steve Sir’s works, please skip to the next paragraph. All those who don’t, bear with me on this quick tangent. I vividly remember my first day of high school, but not my thirtieth. All "firsts" are disruptive, putting our brains on full alert and causing us to notice the smallest of details, challenging our beliefs and assumptions. Humans have developed a cognitive system that remembers information better when the scenario is "out of the ordinary." These episodes are called disruptive moments, and they are profoundly important because they create opportunities that can alter ingrained ideas and personal narratives. These narratives reveal how we view ourselves. For example, two high schoolers make the same grades, but one sees himself/herself as smart, while the other sees himself/herself as a hard worker. Both yield the same result, but one better translates to higher education. “Being smart” only works up to the point one is challenged to one’s limit. The “smart” student will only search for environments that make him/her feel smart. The hard worker will seek academic challenge and thrive in that environment because that is where he/she believes is best for them. I’ve moved from the former to the latter because of camp. To end my tangent I will share my two most important narratives that came about only because of disruptive moments:
- When I am on my path, the universe conspires to help me.
- I will be a storyteller, and will live a story worth telling.
Traditionally, camp has been thought of as an escape from school. While camp provides no formal schooling, aside from Robbie Sir occasionally teaching Rookies (the youngest campers aged 6-9) calculus derivatives in the form of excited chanting, it does help provide a narrative of success. This narrative of success can be seen pretty clearly; children leave with an increased sense of confidence and a belief that they can face challenges. They can experience failure and then re-face the same challenge until they succeed. There are many other reasons this success narrative is garnered, but I would refer you to some of Steve Sir’s blogs as I cannot explain it adequately or in sufficient words to maintain your attention. What was more important for me was the reference frame. I’ve been a big fish in the small pond of the prestigious Marble Falls High School, known for its outstanding fishing team. I kid you not, we are known for our anglers and wranglers. While this issue of being a big fish may not occur for those who attend academically proficient high schools, it definitely occurred for me. I needed an experience to show me that the fish tank wasn’t the biggest body of water I might swim in. I have three camps that changed my reference frame: Camp Champions, El Lago Del Bosque, and the Dartmouth Debate Institute.
Champions placed me in an environment full of all different kinds of people. Many of them had something passionate in which they excelled. I may still have been one of the smarter people in any given room, but that didn’t matter because I was trumped in every other comparative skill by someone else. El Lago Del Bosque put me in a similar situation, but with kids from different countries. While Champions has many international campers, they are encouraged to speak English. At this Spanish camp I was additionally put out of my comfort zone because I couldn’t fall back on English. Everyone was in that environment because they wanted to learn as well, so we struggled in solidarity. Dartmouth Debate had the same mentality. The exception there was that almost everyone in the room was smarter than I was, especially in debate. I floundered while better-prepped and more knowledgeable kids ripped me apart. But that didn’t stop me. I’m not scared to be the dumbest kid in the room, because I’m not the smart kid… I’m the hard working one. All three forced my out of comfort zone; but that was totally ok because everyone else who was there entered the environment to do the same. I expect college is the same. Camp pushed me, broke me, made me better… College is simply an extended camp session.
I have no real concern about being a roommate with a stranger; personal space isn’t something I grew up with. I lived in the same room as my twin until I started high school. Each summer I lived with 11 other guys in my cabin. We even had to keep it clean. Look at the room of a teenage boy. Now multiple the size by only 1.5 and the number of people in the room by 12. All those clothes… the smells… how the cabin got so messy in the span of a day before we had to clean it again is beyond me. Nevertheless, roommates will not be my problem.
For some people, the challenge isn’t that one roommate; it’s the mass population of the school. Social interaction strategy changes depending on the number of participants, but camp teaches one how to deal with big and small. First off, big groups is what camp is about. Dance night encourages everyone to interact and gain some social confidence. (Note to any mothers reading this: I believe that two-stepping is an essential element of camp. Your son, even daughter, many not think he/she needs it yet, but it’s really a life skill.) Even if one is a terrible dancer - as many of my close friends are - there is no better place to learn to sell your particular brand of terrible and make it a show-stopper. Another prime example of group interaction is “Yachts or Naught.” The youngest campers are put into groups in which they try to make cardboard boats that the counselors then race. (This event is one of my personal favorites.) As a result, these campers learn to collaborate and problem solve as a team. Group projects and school might seem more substantive, but they are no more effective in honing these important group skills. The goal is to refine interpersonal skills and develop a narrative that one can work with others. But alas you say, what about the smaller interactions. Camp teaches one to be comfortable with a little sprinkle or even a dust storm of quirky/weird/unusual. The best way to learn to connect with people you can’t immediately connect with is PRACTICE. Camp forces one to practice, constantly; at the end of the day the camper leaves better because of it. By the end, each camper will know each other member in the cabin, even if it is someone he or she would not typically have chosen to hang out with. Camp stimulates face-to-face personal interactions. So there it is, throw me in a room with 200 or two, watch me get campy with that social interaction game.
Now to the quintessential college fear: parental separation. Parents often see their kids not as adults, but as kids still tripping who seem unprepared to leave the nest. Kids see themselves as independent conquistadors about to suavely cruise into their next chapter of life. (Note: these conquistadors often become less independent when laundry day comes around. I’ll be real, I still have to ask about stain removal strategy.) After camp, separation isn’t an issue. Leaving for three weeks is one of the hardest things a small child will have to do. As a counselor I actually had to hold on to a seven year old because he couldn’t bring himself to leave his grandmother, at the grandmother's request of course. But once one deals with the separation, it becomes easier. Also, I think that it is probably better to learn to deal with separation in an environment so geared towards personal development and love. I spent five and a half weeks in Costa Rica living with a third world family and my only issues were that the tacos were too expensive and I missed my dog. I certainly wouldn’t be able to do something like that with such ease if it weren’t for camp, and lots of camp. You can ask my parents, I was an awful camper my first year. I had separation issues from my parents that were 400 yards away. Nevertheless, I got better because I had to do it again and again.
I see other critical advantages of camp as well. Camp also let me play superhero in the sense that I actively had the ability to change my personal identity. Wearing a different hairstyle can sometimes be pretty bold for an in-school transformation, but I had the opportunity to go a camp, disengage from the real world, find an identity that works, and then come back a new person. It taught me that I can form a new identity and reinvent myself in any environment, which is a profound realization and massively useful for an incoming freshman. I don’t have to be resigned to being a nerd or a frat bro, my identity is fluid; I can change to the situation. This is not to say that my sense of identity changes, but rather I know that I have the ability to escape or rise above labels if I see fit. I’m basically better than all the other superheroes; they only get one alternative identity.
When I was a kid I was enthralled with the idea of skateboarding, but was terrified by those who occupied the sport. Those other participants looked mean and acted meaner in the eyes of an admittedly over-sensitive kid. I think this is where camp provided another unique opportunity. Suddenly I was surrounded by young adults and teens who were nice, cared about me, and did things to make sure I was having fun. Young adults changed in my eyes from people who would poke fun at my for their amusement, to adults who would poke fun at each other in an effort to make me feel included. As I have grown older that distinction has become less important, but I have truly internalized that adults are capable of great things for kids and for each other. As I enter the alien world of university, at least I know that everyone is capable of providing the same kind of support I received, I need only create a forum to do so.
Another truth that I just recently stumbled upon was shared by a local preacher. Faith is always prolific right after disruptive moments, but as time passes it dilutes. (This was my interpretation.) I remembered that this is the exact same idea presented at camp. People will frequently say that they are the “best version of themselves” at camp. This improved self-model will continue on for a bit after camp, but sooner or later many revert back to their “normal” selves. I’d like to believe that my years at camp have made my camp self almost the same as my real self, but I can’t say that is entirely true. This is where the continuing benefit of camp comes into play. I have a network of people I can visit and check in with that remind me to be a little more campy each day. Because of my time at camp I not sucked into the trap of diluting my personality back to “normal.”
During the college application process I remember speaking to my mother multiple times about which colleges I would want to apply too. When I mentioned certain schools, I learned that her perception and mine varied meaningfully. A school that was a “safety” school 30 years ago now seems to be quite difficult to get into. Parents are well meaning and loving, but can be outdated in many instances. Times change, college evolves. Parents have many strong beliefs about school and “best fits,” but they do not have perfect information. In times like these, one needs to be able to talk to actual college students to learn about their schools and the decision they recently faced. Also, I have some questions; I simply don’t want to ask my parents. There are topics I am simply more comfortable exploring with friends and mentors who are 2-5 years older than I. I value a legitimate answer over anything else, and I believe it is important to be able to find that from people other than one’s parents. There are a number of reasons I’ve found this to be the case. First, camp provides me an eclectic assortment of counselors that I can ask. Community service? I know a guy. Honors programs? I know a guy. Fraternities? I know lots of guys. Supportive camp-like communities on college? I know a guy who knows a guy, but I know that guy too so it's all good. Second, frequently college kids aren’t the right person to ask. They can be too worried about how their advice reflects on them to give you a legitimate answer. (I’ve experienced that one first hand.) Often high school friends are no better. When talking to old friends, many times the conversation reverts to the same social dynamic as it would if both parties were still in high school. It is really easy to revert back to what one knows, and that means that there isn’t any updating. I can’t honestly give specifics here since I’m still in the thick of high school, but I’ve seen this trend on a general scale.
Lastly, camp people are just better. Flat out. Hands down. The very fact that other camp people will treat one like a camp person means their advice is better because it has camp bias, the best bias. Here is why - helping people is literally the name of the game, encouraging activities that aren’t in another camper's best interest is camp taboo (maybe we try to encourage people in certain directions, but we aren’t trying to change who they are). Also the close environment without technology means that the method of creating relationships is based solely on interpersonal communication - I know you better because every time we talk it is in person. So when I don’t need universal truths, but specific answers, I know I have a reliable web of people with my best interests at heart.
There is not a challenge I am not ready to face. Do I want to face them all? Not really, but when it happens I’m ready. Camp has made college an adventure I’m ready for. After all, I don’t fear college, only the Chupacabra.