Teamwork. Communication. Collaboration. Responsibility. All buzzwords for a good resume. And though the work may take place under the summer sun, camp administrators say camp counselors do it all. Being a counselor is supposed to be fun, and counselors may wear shorts and flip-flops, but their roles and responsibilities really do set them apart.
Just ask Catriona Sangster, director of Camp Wawenock, a girls’ camp in Raymond, and current board president of Maine Summer Camps, a membership organization serving more than 100 Maine camps.
“It offers young people the opportunity to take on real leadership and meaningful roles,” says Sangster. Those roles vary, she says, but they all teach “the nuances of how to approach different people, different styles of learners and different cultures.”
“Counselors make a difference every moment of every day,” Sangster says.
That difference may come by serving as a role model to a youngster, teaching a new skill, or fostering relationships with fellow staff members, but all counselors’ roles speak to “the power of the opportunity to grow as a person and give as a person,” Sangster says.
“I don’t think there’s any summer job a teenager could have that will give them as much responsibility as being a camp counselor,” agrees Charles Donovan, summer director of Camp O-AT-KA boys’ camp, located in Sebago. Those responsibilities exist on a number of levels, he says, ranging from keeping kids safe, to teaching them new skills, to helping insure they are happy and healthy.
“The amount of growth someone can gain by being a counselor is tremendous,” Donovan says.
Donovan, who during the academic year serves as a teacher and debate coach, says coaching applicants who have served as counselors tend to stand out.
Moreover, Sangster says, being a counselor brings meaning. “A lot of this generation wants to find meaning in what they do,” she says. “Life feels superficial.”
Both Sangster and Donovan agree that there are misconceptions about the role of a camp counselor.
“We still have a lot of work to do teaching the world what camp counselors do,” Sangster says. The skills attained at camp are “real life skills,” that many other summer jobs can’t offer, she says.
One Maine camp dedicates a page on its website to supporting counselors who want to use their camp experience in seeking employment. Kingsley Pines camp, located in Raymond, presents a broad range of tips for camp staff seeking jobs in the off-season, and also provides a link to additional job-hunting resources.
Meg Springer, Assistant Director of Career Planning at Bowdoin College, says camp counselors’ experiences can be “life-changing.” Leadership, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, all utilized “around-the-clock,” can prepare young adults for a vast array of future jobs, Springer says.
“It’s an incredible responsibility,” Springer says. “It is probably one of the most challenging jobs a college student can have.”
At Bowdoin, Springer says students who have served as camp counselors experience cultural and socio-economic diversity that often motivates their ultimate career decisions.
Matt Pines, director of Maine Teen Camp in Porter, says that he often hears from former staff members whose camp experience has positioned them well with employers. Counselors often become “go-to” employees in the workplace because of the broad scope of the abilities they learn on-the-job at camp, Pines says.
Anne Rafaelli, 24, of Alexandria, VA, who recently finished her sixth summer as a counselor at Camp Wawenock, says she expects that what she has learned on the job will prove invaluable when she seeks employment outside the camp world.
“The biggest thing is that it is a lot of responsibility,” she says. “You’re taking care of other people’s children.” In performing their roles, Rafaelli says, counselors gain interpersonal skills and the ability to “have meaningful conversations and develop real relationships.”
Add to that leadership skills, she says. “You recognize when it’s your turn to step up,” she says, whether that’s “by listening and being engaged,” or starting a project or leading an activity.
Camps across Maine bring together thousands of young adults willing to take on the challenge of being a counselor. When the job is well done, campers often have summers to remember for a lifetime. The counselors who make it happen may, too. Like campers, they enjoy fun and games, sunshine and camaraderie. But counselors also come away from summers at camp with professional experience that, along with the memories, may serve them for a lifetime as well.