Living the Dream

I would be lying to you, parents, if I told you I wasn’t having fun working at summer camp. Glassy, calm, blue lake, rowboats, sailboats, hiking, yoga, improv, and even disco bingo- these are a few activities that are a part of my job. When prefacing working at summer camp, many people put “job” in quotes, insinuating that camp is not a real position, since we do not work in a cubicle or the depths of a sunless research lab. But do I have to dislike my job to make it a serious, important stepping-stone for my future?

It is my third summer working at a beautiful camp nestled in Lake Tahoe, California. I had some friends who decided to stay on campus or work in a big city; they were so excited to work one-on-one with their idol professor, or so they thought. I even considered a summer staying on campus, as the majority opinion insisted that would be the best place to make connections hereafter.

Instead, many of my friends became lab rats and spent most of their days sitting inside at a desk working for a graduate student crunching numbers, and never even met the professor who led the lab. Though sometimes this necessary grunt work paves the way for a better future position, it is difficult to say whether this interaction-less lifestyle actually helped my friends develop as human beings.

Of course, not all internships or office positions are like this. It seems the successful tech companies of the Silicon Valley have begun to incorporate a camp-style experience with office life, maintaining that happy workers do a better job. For example, a conference room at Palo Alto’s Palantir is, essentially, a Chuck E. Cheese style ball pit. Google, for example, even offers subsidized massages, Pilates classes, and a vast array of free food. Google is a beyond successful multi billion dollar company; they must know a thing or two about creating a good work atmosphere and productive employees. One recent March 2013 New York Timesarticle about “Google: a Place to Work and Play,” noted, “…people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”

Though there are some set standards of hospitality at camp, like at Google, there is also space to create new and original programming and to initiate and oversee a unique camp experience. One of my co-counselors, a junior at Stanford, notes that working at a camp has allowed her “to be her best self and to grow as a person.” At most general internships, the creativity is limited to which size of straw to get for your boss’ coffee or which kind of notepad to write your chores in. With this flexibility for ownership of the camp programs, it permits staff to wear many hats: both the professional customer service beret, and the self-expressive cowboy hat. From even the most monotonous jobs like scrubbing floors, camp staffers always bring their own creativity to the literal floor; they often create themes, wear costumes, choreograph a song and dance, or incorporate some way to entertain the guests. Not only does this dimension provide a spectacle for the amused campers, it also creates a happy and productive workplace.

In addition to being emotionally fulfilled and happy working at a summer camp, every job and effort I have sweat over at camp has been indispensible to some aspect of my life. Obviously every camp is different, yet most camps today expect and feature high quality care and service.

The following are just a few additional key tools that I personally have gained as a camp counselor:

Childcare and Conflict Resolution:  If you have ever tried to get two five year olds to share an amazing toy, you know how difficult it can be to appease both parties without some tears. Trying to work out a compromise requires extreme patience, good listening skills, and an ability to be an objective mediator. These qualities of conflict resolution apply whether two children are fighting over a dodge ball game or two CEO’s are discussing the next step in the million-dollar company merger.

Customer Service:  Living at a camp, one is technically always working. There is constantly a guest with certain dietary restrictions, a special request, or someone who has a comment or complaint. I once had a guest tell me that the “raw mushrooms were too rubbery.” I am no scientist, but I would argue that raw mushrooms, by nature, are in fact rubbery. As a customer service representative of the camp, one must have the patience to listen to these kinds of comments, the sensitivity to feel with the guest, and the responsibility to follow through and create positive changes.

Safety/Liability Knowledge:  All camp counselors are required to be CPR, first aid/lifeguard trained and are given briefs in liability and safety. In any work or personal environment, this knowledge is essential for ensuring the safety of yourself and those around you. It is also a great introduction to important legal ramifications.

Time Management:  Camp work requires being on almost 24/7. One must be both able to work hard, get enough rest, and try to find personal time. In addition, on a moment’s notice one must be able to split his or her time and interact appropriately with people of all different ages and from all different walks of life.

The Future
If you are worried about resume building, camp can actually be a huge asset; it is all about how you frame the experiences that you have had and how you communicate your time. It is comparable to a well-written college essay. A friend of mine who attended Stanford with me wrote her application essay as a comparison of herself to a Nerds rope. A Nerds rope is a simple, piece of candy, yet examined from a new angle and upon closer inspection, a Nerds rope can be a complex and intricate work of art.

It is the same with including “summer camp” on your resume. One could simply just say, “camp counselor,” but as a hard-working camp counselor myself, I know that that meager description is barely even a snowflake from the tip of the iceberg. I can only hope that any future job or internship provides me with at least a smattering of the experience, expertise, and relationships that I gained while joyously working at camp.

For me, the proverbial “road less traveled” has led not only to lush forests and crystal clear lakes, but also to clarity and definition in a sustaining passion and career choice in life.

Nicoletta Heidegger graduated in 2013 from Stanford University, where she majored in Psychology and served as the school mascot, the Stanford tree. She now lives in Los Angeles and attends Pepperdine University for a clinical masters program in marriage and family therapy. In her free time, Nicoletta competes hunter jumper horses and loves to surf and play the drums.

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