Hiring Camp Staff, Part II: The Challenge of the “Internship Climate” for College Students and the Camps Who Want to Hire Them

As college students look ahead toward post-graduate careers, they face pressures from all sides. From a financial standpoint, many young adults have incurred student loans, making the importance of a secure job both during school and after graduation even more essential. In addition, college students often believe that a successful career demands a lock-step progression of experiences on the way to that first job. Accordingly, while young adults pursue their studies, they increasingly feel pressure to participate in a professional, often major-related, internship to help pave the way toward that just-right position after college is over.

As camp directors seek to fill their staff positions in preparation for the 2019 season, they face the increasing impact of this internship-focused climate. But just as camps remain creative and responsive to meeting the needs of thousands of young campers year after year, Maine camps also meet the challenge of “competing” with the internship opportunities their potential staff members are considering.

Maine camp directors are unequivocal in one view: gains from a more traditional college internship, and all the elements and benefits of being a camp counselor/instructor, are not mutually exclusive. Yes, a summer in a corporate office, dedicated to a particular professional undertaking, is different from the myriad of roles at camp. But many Maine camp professionals continue to welcome those college students and to pitch the benefits of a summer at camp. Sometimes camp directors even organize formal internship arrangements with the students’ schools.

A Summer Camp Job IS Career Preparation

Camp directors statewide are quick and enthusiastic to promote all the ways professional career preparation takes place among staff and kids throughout the camping season. At girls’ Camp Wawenock in Raymond, Assistant Director Kristy Andrews has created a one-page sheet entitled “Why You Should Work at Camp Wawenock,” a straightforward list that promotes not only a broad range of of job skills, but also perks not necessarily available in other internship settings.

For example, the “Build Transferable Skills” section describes everything from communication to conflict resolution to collaboration, and states that staff will also develop leadership and management skills. Camp positions also provide staff training and feedback, the chance to develop new strengths, and opportunities to “learn more about what you love.” In addition, camps can provide instructor, lifeguard, and CPR/First Aid training. Of course, there are additional perks: room and board; healthy lifestyle; casual work clothes; and, in some cases, collaboration with a college or university to create a formalized internship.

Catriona Sangster, who owns and directs Camp Wawenock with her husband, Andy, suggests that depending on the specific professional internship, an intern may receive “more professional advice, if you will, but might not get as much hands-on.” An internship at camp provides broad opportunities for developing skill sets, Catriona says. And “there is so much to be learned” with respect to working with people, she says.

College students face the pressure to obtain summer internships earlier and earlier in their academic careers, Catriona says. Combating that challenge demands that camps successfully inform colleges that working at a summer camp — and developing a variety of widely-applicable skills — instills truly professional abilities in staff.

One long-time Camp Wawenock staff member indicated that she was going to pursue a non-camp internship, Catriona said, despite the fact that the offer to return to camp was a leadership position with entirely new responsibilities.

“She’s coming back,” Catriona said. “But those are the kids we are going to lose to colleges, if they don’t understand we can call this an internship.”

“We are a professional organization and yet the rest of society doesn’t necessary acknowledge it,” she says.

Another Wawenock camper-turned-staff member successfully completed a formal internship at the camp in support of her academic major in fashion design, Catriona says. A student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the student’s responsibilities included overseeing the camp’s fiber arts activities. Catriona says the staff member’s college advisor even traveled to Maine for an on-site visit. “She was so receptive.”

“We are forging connections,” Catriona says. “We are also helping our staff and ourselves really re-write those job descriptions, and change our language.”

Part of that effort includes instructing camp staff members on how to describe their camp roles and responsibilities on their resumes. “Don’t downplay the role you’ve had at camp,” Catriona says.

At Camp Susan Curtis, a co-ed camp in Stoneham that hosts under-served Maine youth free of charge, Director Terri Mulks says “we lose a lot of great people every year because of pressure to do an internship.”

“We always offer that they can do [an internship] with us,” Mulks says. From nursing to accounting majors, Mulks says many students have found a summer niche. But convincing colleges of the benefits can be challenging, she says.

“A lot of colleges don’t see that a summer internship at a camp is the same thing as having an internship at an office,” she says.

Mulks says one success story came from a University of Southern Maine therapeutic recreation student. The student’s collaboration with the department head gave rise to an official internship. The requirement to take an internship class during the summer was addressed by department officials, who worked with the student to require written papers in lieu of the class.

The challenge is ongoing, Mulks says: to get the general working public to appreciate the true professional benefits of camp employment.

Mulks has successfully collaborated with both the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine at Farmington to make 3 General Elective Credits available — on a one-time basis — to students who work at Camp Susan Curtis. Part of the requirement is that these camp staff members submit their end-of-summer appraisals to their university’s Office of Prior Learning. That credit availability is a helpful recruitment tool, Mulks says, although she cautions that it is not available at the University of Maine at Orono.

At the Girls Scouts of Maine, Mary Boyle directs Camp Pondicherry in Bridgton. Boyle says she agrees with the importance of emphasizing camp work’s relevance, as well as the impact of the industry in general.

Boyle says she has consistently encountered potential staff members who decline camp opportunities in favor of internships. She hopes an upcoming job fair at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst may enable her to identify potential staff also eligible for internships.

Catriona Sangster, Mulks and Boyle agree that that the American Camp Association, the nationwide professional organization supporting youth camps, consistently seeks to meet staffing challenges. One ACA publication is entitled “Translating Your Camp Employment Experience to Future Employers.” Its tips include: consider job title, job description, and the full scope of qualifications — learnings skills, knowledge skills, life skills. The one-page tip sheet also encourages the use of “active language,” and offers language suggestions beginning with “administer” at the beginning of the alphabet, to “witness,” “work,” and “write” near the end.

Another ACA promotion is entitled “Summer Camp Jobs Exposed!” The subtitle sums up what Maine camp directors promote more and more as they recruit staff: “What’s really going on behind all of the fun?” the promo asks. “If you’re not careful, you’ll develop skills employers really want to see on your resume.”

From communication skills to critical thinking and problem solving to interpersonal and collaborative skills — all couched in creativity — ACA camp proponents want potential staff to bear in mind a basic truth: “Behind all the fun . . . camp is serious business that builds a solid resume.”

Maine summer camps offer their staff members a wealth of personal and professional gains during the camp season. While camp counselors are teaching and nurturing young campers, they also develop relationships, undergo immense skill acquisition, and are paid for their hard work. Camp directors and leaders are committed to promoting these benefits, both to recruit staff, but also to continue to spread the word. Camp work is fun, rewarding, and, yes, occasionally difficult. It also prepares counselors and instructors for work that extends far beyond summers in Maine’s beauty. Camp may end; the professional benefits of a camp job transcend the seasons.

Interested in a summer camp job? Check out https://mainecamps.org/summer-camp-jobs/ for a comprehensive look at where you could gain all benefits of working with young people in Maine’s natural beauty – and start building a professional resume at the same time.

Kristine Millard

About Kristine Millard

Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, a master’s degree (communications) and a law degree from Boston University, and, most recently, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is currently helping to edit The Art of Outdoor Living, a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates, and is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter. She has also contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. Kris has written regularly for Maine Women and My Generation, both publications of Current Publishing. She has written features for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and is also a free-lance grant writer. A parent, she is also deeply committed to the subject of emotional wellness, and has seen how camp can foster whole and healthy kids. She is working on a memoir about living with clinical depression, and an essay she has written on that topic is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Talking Writing, an on-line literary magazine.