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What higher ed can learn from summer camps

Despite the obvious comparisons between the age groups, this summer has been transcendent because it’s the first summer I’ve been in a management position at camp rather than just in a leadership role managing an activity and kids in a cabin.

Camp has been a big deal for me; I’ve done it for every free summer I’ve had as an adult doing it. I also have a very difficult time explaining my camp life to people. To the uninitiated, summer camp is something you see in movies but have little context for, but for those who’ve experienced the peculiarities of sleep away camp, they understand that it’s one part quirk and one part culture. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner was so affected by his camp years that he wrote a book about it.

Just like I have a hard time conveying to friends who’ve gone to college but never worked in higher ed the strangeness of things like hiring cycles, the way offices work and so forth. Well, camps have their own culture with strange songs and dining hall practices, wake up schedules and activities that may or may not be understood to an outsider showing on a regular day of camp.

The most notable thing that summer camps have to teach higher ed is pride in being who you are. Take a look at the web site of any summer camp and see how they present themselves. Few are apologetic and most have no interest in trying to convert those who don’t want to be converted. They know who they are and have a history they can chronicle for you. 

Now I realize there are a variety of differences ranging from no faculty, only a summer to worry about rather than years and years. But with younger children spending what amounts to the entire childhoods in some cases away at camp, the influences and relationships they make in these venues can dwarf the college years.

This explains why so many campers end up as camp staff in the future and have such devoted loyalty to their summer homes years after they’ve left, send their children to their places for generation after generation. Of course, the hard work gets done on the recruiting trail during the year at conventions and conferences akin to higher ed. And imagine if you had to re-hire your entire faculty and staff each year from food services, to janitors, RAs, faculty and everyone else who ran your operation save for a few full-time staff? 

This is a topic that I’ll probably write more extensive about after the summer ends, but it’s taken me an entire summer to really wrap my mind around how much goes into making these places work season after season.