Summer camp. Two words that you might’ve feared or loved during your childhood. Growing up, my parents never understood the concept of summer camp. They would rather I spend my summers at home with them and even though I wouldn’t change that, I always had this “what if” question. What if I were to spend my summers with sunny skies and moments away from my parents?
Perhaps this “what if” question is the reason why I gravitated towards working at a summer camp because I could never be a camper myself. Every year since I graduated high school, I worked for the summer camp of my high school’s speech and debate team. This had been the only camp that I’d ever worked for until this past summer.
In July, I was given the opportunity to work at a different camp for once. It wasn’t the traditional kind of summer camp, either. This one was facilitated by Education Unlimited, an organization that runs an academic summer camp program on a week-by-week basis at college campuses such as UC Berkeley, UCLA, Georgetown and Stanford. The camp’s focus on academics makes it unique from other summer camps, but not any less exciting. Its academic element provides students from 6th to 12th grade with an eye-opening experience that allows them to explore their individuality.
When one of my coaches told me that a friend of his was looking for an assistant director at their camp, I was thrilled to take the position. My responsibility as an assistant director consisted of a lot of administrative work, recreational activities, supervision and floating around between the camps to assist on a need-by-need basis. But, in addition to that, I was able to interact with the campers like a camp counselor. I ended up enjoying my job so much that I worked at Education Unlimited for three weeks at Stanford.
A piece of wisdom that I’ve heard is that camp can be a redefining moment for kids’ lives. And I’ve learned many ways that this statement rings true. Campers are given a certain level of control and independence that seems to allow them to redefine themselves in an environment that is liberated from their usual bubble. What I mean by a “bubble” is the community you’re surrounded by – your hometown, your friends, family and peers. At camp, I understood the real impacts of living within one of those bubbles. The community that kids are surrounded by makes a bigger impact than you might think, and camp offers kids the very special gift of the space needed to rethink their own sense of community.
A piece of wisdom that I’ve heard is that camp can be a redefining moment for kids’ lives. And I’ve learned many ways that this statement rings true.
When campers arrived at the registration table, we didn’t stamp their pronouns on their nametags because we wanted to give our campers the opportunity to change or experiment with their pronouns, if desired, after their parents left. It was an empowering moment for some campers because it gave them the green light to express their identity, free from the confines of their everyday social pressures. Placed in a completely new environment, kids seemed to treat it like it was a place where they could start fresh. It was beautiful to see the natural connection they made with each other through silly games and sitting in class together.
Seeing the campers live, play and work together reminded me of my first year at Berkeley when I moved into the student dorms. It’s crazy how through proximity with new people, we can create meaningful bonds in such a short amount of time. In just one week, I watched campers get to know each other and become friends with kids from many different backgrounds and all over the world.
Something I learned from the campers is that connection is built, not curated. And summer camp is a space that builds that connection. Oftentimes, group projects would bring them together. Whether they were collaborating to film a short horror trailer for video and production class, or learning how to dissect a sheep brain for neuroanatomy class, they enjoyed learning from each other. It’s easy to curate friendships by placing campers into these situations, however, at camp you see them choose to build these connections with each other. Together campers rely on each other and build trust in an organic way that may easily be lost in their hometown bubble.
Something I learned from the campers is that connection is built, not curated. And summer camp is a space that builds that connection.
It was inspiring to witness campers figure out who they wanted to become when thrown into that new place. The individuality of each camper began to shine as they experimented with their personality. I watched some campers become more social, while I saw others show off their nerdy side or their competitive nature. Some of the changes that I saw in campers might have been as simple as seeing someone who is usually quiet in class reach out and ask for help. These changes showed me that going to summer camp allowed kids to free themselves from a lot of the judgment and fear that they might’ve experienced back at home.
But, as valuable as summer camps can be for children, they can be just as valuable to everyone who participates in them. For me, I had my own redefining moment while working at camp for three weeks. The people that I met, both staff and children alike, helped me to recognize how I felt internally and acknowledge some of the flaws that I know I have. Once, at a staff dinner, we were talking about what camp means to us when one of my coworkers said that camp can be redefining for one’s self. This really resonated with me because I struggle with being vulnerable and expressing myself. In my daily life, I constantly overthink what others think of me and feel a need to uphold whatever conception they might have of me. Having conversations with my coworkers helped me to come to terms with why I felt this way and accept it.
With this newfound acceptance, I decided to set a personal goal as a way to redefine that part of myself. My goal for this year is to be more unhinged. The term unhinged may seem silly or even extreme, however, the point is to care less, even just a little bit less. All my life, I’ve spent way too much time overthinking. I tend to care so much about what people think of me that it can and does affect the way I make decisions. I sometimes say “no” to opportunities that I could’ve said “yes” to. Working at camp showed me that I don’t need to take everything so seriously all the time. As cheesy as it may sound, I’ve learned that everything will be okay, the world will keep on spinning even if I make mistakes. Allowing myself the time to just take a breath and really enjoy every moment makes daily life so much more fun.
As cheesy as it may sound, I’ve learned that everything will be okay, the world will keep on spinning even if I make mistakes.
It was refreshing, too, that camp enabled me to finally discover what I wanted to do career-wise. Growing up, I felt like I bore the weight of the world when it came to my academics. My parents always encouraged me to pursue a career involving some type of government work. And for the longest time, that was a pre-law track. However, after a conversation with my coworker about my career, I had this “oh” moment. When he asked why I was passionate about the field I had been pursuing, I came to a standstill. Our conversation made me ask myself, “What was I so afraid of all this time?” For so many years, I’ve brushed over this topic, giving the same robotic response whenever asked about what I want to do. But deep down, I knew I wouldn’t be happy in this field.
These moments at camp gave me the courage to have an open and honest conversation with my parents about my goals. I had a complete 180 on where I had thought I was headed and I was surprised to hear my parents tell me that I didn’t need to go into government at all. In fact, they confirmed that they just want me to be happy. All this time, I felt the pressure of being the first person in my family to go to college. To me, being a first-generation student meant paving the way for my family to make them proud, but now I know that I am making them proud by just continuing to do what makes me happy.
Working at camp was an experience unlike any other. I felt like there weren’t any expectations or standards for how I should be acting. Being surrounded by children brought out my inner child in a way that I cannot usually express in my daily life. I appreciated seeing campers act goofy for their lip sync dance battles and get competitive while they played Capture the Flag. No matter what activity we did, I saw how camp revealed their authentic selves in a way that felt pure and genuine.
To me, being a first-generation student meant paving the way for my family to make them proud, but now I know that I am making them proud by just continuing to do what makes me happy.
This summer, I learned how much I love working with children and I can see myself continuing this kind of work in the summers to come. Distanced from the regular expectations of society, campers can tap into their creativity without feeling confined or judged by others. The camp environment itself put me in a headspace that was unique from my usual bubble. For the first time, I could see how much more fun life is when you take it day to day and make the most out of it.