Written by: Lizzie Goodell
Designed by: Charlotte Moore
In a world where getting a job after you graduate is essential, should “Camp Counselor” have a place on your resume?
“So, tell us a little more about your experience at Camp Lurecrest.”
Caitlin Coons pauses. She’s staring at her computer screen, where she is Skyping with three Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios executives. This is her seventh interview in the process of applying to
be a Disney Production Assistant, and not one person before today has asked about her time at the North Carolina camp. Coons has trouble remembering if she even put “Lifeguard at Camp Lurecrest – Summer 2009/Summer 2010” on her resume. She smiles at the camera, and explains that she alternated working at Camp Lurecrest and at a YMCA summer day camp up until the summer after her junior year in college, when she interned with a documentary company in Los Angeles. The Disney executives skip over her internship experience for now.
“How hands-on was your experience at the camp? Did you lead a group of campers?” they ask.
Coons smiles again, nervously, and launches into a story about leading her group of 9-year-olds in the water balloon toss at the end-of-camp fair. Fights broke out and water balloons were catapulted, not tossed. Coons spent the day drenched, discussing the most efficient elbow-bend position to catch a balloon with.
“It was a blast,” Coons says to the screen. “And one of the more stressful days of my life.”
A mere two months after Coons graduated from Emerson College in Boston, she made the cross-country road trip from her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, to L.A. to move into her new apartment. She got the job. It only takes a month working at Disney for Coons to understand why she was asked about camp.
“Sure, there’s some technical stuff involved, but so much of what I do is working with people,” Coons says. “They cared less about the special skills I could list off and more about the type of person I was and whether I would fit into their culture. I wish I had stressed less about those internships I didn’t get in college!”
It’s not news that college students are stressed. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America conducted a survey that showed 80 percent of college students are frequently stressed on a daily basis. But society’s obsession with internships, which intensified about a decade ago, is only getting more extreme.
College career services, on average, used to recommend graduating with four to five internships if one hoped to attain his or her “dream job.” Now, four to five internships can be essential to attain any job in some professions such as journalism or business. Popular tech companies like Google and well-regarded newspapers like The New York Times post job listings that require at least five years of experience. The learning period between graduation and one’s early 30s has all but vanished.
Where does camp fit into all of this? When kids, or more likely parents, think back to their camp days, cool college-age counselors were a staple. Camps are now struggling to maintain loyal, long- term counselors. They have to keep rehiring the newest batch of high school seniors while the college kids go off to big cities to find internships at banks and labs. But there are the few students who do continue working for their camp until senior year of college. They argue that camp counseling, a 24/7 interactive and unpredictable job, teaches them more than making copies at a huge corporation ever could. Some people, like Coons, believe camp is the reason they got their job in the first place.
Just recently, University of Texas senior Edward Taussig took “camp counselor” off his resume. Then he put it back on. Then he took it back off. He left it off, but kept his head coach position that he held at a Houston neighborhood swim camp for three years on his newly revised resume. And he thanks the heavens that he did.
“I had an interview for a job last Friday, and we talked about my coach position the entire time,” Taussig said. “Now that I think about it, coaching was a big topic in the interview for the internship I got at LyondellBasell last summer.”
Taussig is in the McCombs School of Business at UT, where he studies supply chain management, and LyondellBasell is a chemical company based in Houston. In other words, Taussig’s career plans have little to do with children or swimming.
Instead of making the switch to internships right away, Taussig stayed on as a coach the summer after his freshman year of college.
“At that point, I wasn’t qualified enough to get a good business internship, so I definitely gained more by remaining a camp coach,” Taussig said. Once Taussig got a worthwhile internship with LyondellBasell after his junior year, he realized business school taught him technical skills, but coaching taught him life skills.
“Persuasion was a big one – if you can persuade a 7-year-old to do something they don’t want to do, you can persuade a logically thinking adult,” Taussig said.
He used this skill when pitching ideas during meetings in order to gain the trust and respect of his peers. Taussig also believed that collaboration with his fellow coaches and with camper parents was of value.
“As I interview now, I see that jobs just want proof that you can interact with people, and that you are able to calmly solve problems.”
Linda Peak, owner of a niche recruiting firm in the energy industry, agrees with Taussig’s conclusion: Camp counselor experience is a positive. “Being a counselor requires more independence and responsibility than most summer jobs or internships could offer,” she said.
Peak does recommend obtaining a well-respected internship after junior year of college for the purpose of ensuring that one has chosen the right career path. She said that many people change their mind about a job after some experience, and college is the best time to go back and rethink your major or trajectory. But being a camp counselor before you know exactly what you want to do in life will rarely be seen as a negative, Peak said.
Taussig didn’t always have great internships that appreciated his coaching skills, or any of his skills for that matter. The summer after his sophomore year at UT, Taussig spent June and July studying abroad in Hong Kong, but came back in August for an unpaid internship.
“I was just dropped in an office cubicle and worked on Excel stuff all day,” he said. “I gained no real experience, and ended up wishing I went back to coaching instead.” But Taussig had been caught up in the internship craze.
In a study of the Class of 2014, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) discovered that 61 percent of graduating seniors had an internship or co-op experience. More than half the graduates who received job offers before graduation held more than one internship.
It’s obvious internships are of value in today’s job market, but are unpaid internships, where you gain
little but a line on your resume, really worth it? The median starting salary of former unpaid interns was $35,721, which is lower than that of non-interns, who start out earning $37,087. The salary for those who had paid internships is the highest at $51,930, the NACE study found.
Jeff Sackaroff is one of the associate directors of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s university career services and the overseer of Employer Relations/Development Functions. He believes that while any extracurriculars, such as camp counseling, can have value, internships — paid or unpaid — are essential for preparing for the professional world.
“The time of being unpaid to get coffee or make copies is over – I hope,” Sackaroff said.
But with the lawsuits that have been brewing over the last few years in response to interns not being paid for their excessive work hours, Sackaroff’s point of view may be naïve.
Layne Kinney attended Camp Longhorn in Burnet, Texas, for nine years, and then became a counselor there for two years before quitting the summer after freshman year of college. Kinney, as a graphic design major, would have loved to move to New York to work for an advertising company, but she couldn’t afford the big city in an unpaid position. She also couldn’t afford to stay at camp.
“At Camp Longhorn, I was making about $100 a week for a 24/7 job,” Kinney said. “I could make so much more working less hours at a retail job.”
Parents who don’t quite understand the internship craze the same way the millennial generation does often encourage their kids to work at camp, have fun and earn money while they still can. Why suffer at an unpaid internship when you basically earn money by attending camp? But if saving up cash is really an issue, camp might not be the answer. Counselors don’t earn much since they are usually offered room and board at overnight camps. Kinney, who needed to make summer money to support herself during the school year, turned to real, old-fashioned jobs, like working at her aunt’s toy store.
“Sure, at camp, you’re learning to interact with people,” Kinney said. “But interacting with kids is casual while interacting with customers requires a formality that will help me deal with clients later in my career.”
Kinney misses her camp days, but described the feeling as nostalgia, not regret. She was ready to move on, but now worries about her future career.
“Of course I’d much rather be earning money doing something I love, but it’s rare that design internships pay as much as a store job,” Kinney said. “I’ve come to accept that.”
Some students are lucky enough to link their camp experiences directly to their career goals. “If students are planning to work with children or adults of a certain age, or work at a camp related to their career path, then they should showcase camp counselor on their resume,” said Christy Dunston, a career counselor for UNC-Chapel Hill career services.
Sarah Werner, a sports management major at UT, never attended camp as a camper. But when she started camp counseling at Camp Kanakuk in Branson, Missouri, after her freshman year, Werner never looked back. She discovered Kanakuk through campus ministries and wanted to teach there for religious reasons, but soon found Kanakuk was a sports camp that could easily relate to her career goal: managing collegiate athletes. Werner also didn’t share her classmates’ fear
of graduating without enough internship experience.
“I intern during the school year with collegiate athletes,” Werner said. “And having my biblical foundation will set me up for whatever profession I choose.”
Kanakuk, like most camps, wants to maintain long-term counselors, so they know how to persuade college students to stay.
“Trish Hessel, the counselor coordinator, is great at writing off camp as a ‘sports internship’ for me,” Werner said.
Whether turning camp counseling into an internship is morally correct or not, Werner believes that camp teaches her more about sports management than an internship could. She spends her days teaching six periods of sports, specializing in basketball, and interacting with Division I athletes who come to help out the campers.
“Even if it doesn’t specifically help with the part of management that I want to go into, it makes me believe in what I’m doing and what I’m working toward.”
Werner plans to attend Camp Kanakuk’s unique biblical graduate program after she graduates
from UT, and said she could see herself working at the camp full-time after she has a career
in sports management. When asked why, Werner replies with a revolutionary answer, consideringthe number of students stressed about how something will look on their resumes.
“Because I want to.”
Werner is a strong believer in Kanakuk’s motto: “Where I am is where I’m meant to be.”
After two years at Disney, Coons moved up from production assistant to production coordinator. She finally figured out Disney’s maxim: Happy people make happy films. It’s 2014 and Coons and her animation team are working on “Big Hero 6.”
Morale is looking low as the animation gets less plot-based and more technical – are his shirt buttons straight? Would his shadow be cast in that direction? The lighting department finally reaches its halfway point, and Coons calls for a Spirit Week to cheer everybody up. Each day will be a different theme — not so different from the Spirit Week at Camp Lurecrest. Her team of 25 shows up on Monday dressed as their favorite 1990s cartoon character. Wednesday is face- painting day. And Friday is wear- your-bathing-suit-to-work-day. Coons warns that a water balloon toss might be involved.
Written by: Maria Peña
Designed by: Charlotte Moore
France, Spain, Germany, Mexico and the
United Kingdom — the list goes on and on. Every summer, young adults from all over the world are drawn to the United States to be camp counselors. It is a great opportunity for them to have a summer job while they soak up the American culture. Ninon, Cristina, Iñaki and Alice describe their experiences as international summer camp counselors.