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Internship vs. Camp: No Need to Choose

16.03.16

It’s an experience that every Camp Alleghany counselor has had at some point. You look down at the resumé that you’ve revised again and again, and you hardly recognize your camp years.

Did you really manage all those people and activities?

Were you considered “promoted” when you moved from Junior Counselor (JC) to full-fledged Counselor to Unit Head to Head Counselor?

Yes! It was a job! Furthermore, it was a job that required an extraordinary amount of commitment, selflessness, and ingenuity. But the days were long and beautiful, and it was easy to forget that it was paid work when you swam in the river, surrounded by friends and five o’clock sun.

Climbing the ladder

College students and recent graduates are increasingly told that they must streamline their professional experiences into one linear narrative. X must lead to Y, which in turn must lead to Z. There’s no apparent room for employment or volunteer experience that doesn’t directly relate to an undergraduate major or professional aspiration. An internship (or multiple internships) seems like the best bet for landing a job after graduation.

I completely understand the importance of internships in today’s job market. I teach an undergraduate internship seminar in the International Humanitarian Studies program at Fordham University in New York City, and I work very hard to see that my students are placed with organizations that align with their interests.

A good internship can provide a gateway to your desired sector or help develop a valuable skillset. It can flesh out your resumé when it’s time to enter a competitive job market. I had an internship my entire senior year of college and throughout most of graduate school. Those experiences influenced me greatly, both professionally and personally.

Camp counseling is a real job

But I was also a Camp Alleghany Counselor, Head Counselor, and senior staff member, and I would not be where I am today without the skills and work experience I gained through working at camp.

In the summer of 2009, I had just graduated from college and was Assistant Head of Junior Camp. In addition to co-managing Junior Camp, my responsibilities included planning all evening activities and coordinating the end-of-summer Banquet celebrations.

Fast-forward two years, and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda managing a Ministry of Justice English training program that I had co-founded. It had 60 instructors and 300 students. If it were not for my time at camp, I wouldn’t have known where to begin in terms of creating instructor trainings, giving constructive feedback to instructors and students, and coordinating logistics with Peace Corps, the U.S. Embassy, and Rwanda’s Supreme Court. I had a set of practical, transferable skills that gave me the confidence to take on a project that seemed out of my league.

My point is that you don’t have to choose between working at a camp and doing an internship. There’s room for both. The experiences can complement each other, making you a stronger job candidate down the line. After reflecting on my students’ internship experiences, as well as my own job history, I’ve highlighted five areas where working at camp over consecutive summers can give you a distinct professional advantage over other recent college graduates.

1. Progressive Experience

Many job descriptions list a minimum number of years of experience and require progressive experience. Companies and organizations want to see that you were entrusted with increased responsibilities over time. It implies that you were committed to your work and motivated to pursue higher positions.

Camp Alleghany for Girls provides a very clear structure for how to advance internally and invests a lot of resources in your professional development (think all of JC summer and the nearly two-week counselor training before camp begins each year). You have the opportunity to work your way up summer after summer, and the position titles (Unit Head, Department Head, Head Counselor) communicate clearly that you are accountable for crucial aspects of camp’s operations.

While internship programs may offer the opportunity to return after the initial term, interns generally do not advance past their initial responsibilities. Furthermore, graduate students are increasingly preferred when filling internship positions, especially in the summer months. Generally speaking, the best route for undergraduates is to complete internships for academic credit during the school year. Not only do you have a higher chance of finding a placement, but you may also be invited to stay on in the spring or come back in the fall.

In this way, you can work at camp and do an internship that is directly related to your major. You will develop overlapping skillsets and have a well-rounded resumé that communicates both depth and breadth.

2. Managerial Skills

Managing a group of your peers is one of the most difficult and crucial aspects of professional life. My students are an intelligent and motivated bunch whose internship placements range from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch to Cook For Your Life, a small NGO that specializes in cooking classes for cancer survivors within refugee and migrant populations.

At first glance their resumés are very impressive, and as college juniors and seniors they seem well placed to enter the job market. But very few of them can list any substantial managerial experience on their resumés, even after finishing their internships for my seminar.

Now think about your camp experience.

To be directly responsible for the welfare of 4, 25, 60, or 100 campers is no small task. It requires excellent organizational and communication skills as well as a lot of compassion.

If a counselor is struggling with a camper, it’s your responsibility as a Head Counselor to support the Unit Head, who in turn supports both the camper and counselor as they work through the problem; you can neither micromanage nor ignore the situation.

If one of your Dance Department staff is not fulfilling all of her duties, as the Department Head you must be tough but fair in your feedback during midterm and final evaluations. While having management experience strengthens any resumé, you’ll personally benefit from understanding in a hands-on way how to manage different types of people and situations.

3. Achievements and Outcomes

A strong resumé is one that not only clearly communicates individual achievements, but also demonstrates how your actions contributed to successful outcomes for the whole organization.

Camp Alleghany is thriving and everyone involved directly contributes to this success. Perhaps you were Head of Archery two summers in a row and during that time the number of campers who wanted to sign up for Archery doubled. How did you contribute to that phenomenon? Did you come up with new activities to teach archery to beginners? Did you introduce new competitions that made it a more popular activity? Did you work with the Program Director to offer extracurricular activities outside of normal class time?

The achievement is that you succeeded in collaborating with others to innovate within the Archery Department; the outcome is that more campers want to sign up for the activity, which in turn benefits camp. You can quantify this achievement and outcome on your resumé (e.g. “diversified programming for 4 classes per day over 2 three-week terms, increased enrollment by 50% to 100 campers per term, supervised 10 staff members, maintained inventory of 30 bows and 200 arrows, managed budget of $200 per term”), but more importantly the numbers communicate that you have taken the time to reflect on and understand the impact of your work.

4. Knowing What Your Work is Worth

For many of us, camp was the first job that paid us a salary (rather than an hourly rate). We received room and board instead of health insurance and a 401k, but it was still a salary. We went through extensive training and had regular performance reviews. Our employers invested in us, and in turn we were expected to perform to the best of our abilities. It was a “real” job. We began to gauge what compensation might look like for our work in the future.

In contrast, it can be very difficult to determine the market value for your work during an internship. Whose salary can you use as a frame of reference? Do you derive value based on total hours worked per week or the total number of projects you worked on in a summer or semester? Whose work was more valuable: you who worked more hours per week at your internship or your friend whose internship gave her free food and a travel stipend everyday?

Camp may not feel like a massive windfall of disposable income, but it’s a starting point for knowing what your work is worth.

Take the summer salary (roughly two months) for a Head Counselor, where the minimum age is 21. Estimate what two months of rent, utilities, and food would be in Lewisburg, West Virginia and add that to the salary. Factor in the monthly health insurance premium (x2) that you pay independently or have through your parents or school. Multiply all of that by 6 and you have a reference point for salary negotiations for your first job, after taking into account geographical differences in cost of living and the type of job you are seeking.

5. Building Relationships

A distinct advantage of working at camp is that it is not a purely professional experience. You mostly like grew up with your co-workers; you share deep bonds that go back years and years, and you live together all summer. You don’t have the option to go home at the end of the day and decompress. You must find a way to resolve conflicts quickly, setting aside personal differences (or similarities). Camp is where you learn that people are surprising in their abilities, and it is not necessary to be best friends in order to accomplish something extraordinary.

More importantly, these relationships don’t end at the end of the summer. From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t matter what’s on your resumé if you can’t get anyone to look at it. Being part of a network is crucial, and this is where Camp Alleghany alumnae come into play. ‘Ghany Girls are a group of bold and accomplished women who work in many places and across many sectors. Through your shared experience of working at Alleghany, camp alums know exactly what skills you’ve gained and what you could contribute in a workplace. They can help you set up informational interviews in your desired industry, give you feedback on your resumé, and pass on your materials to a hiring manager. Don’t underestimate how powerful it is to be part of this network!

Wrap up

There’s no formula that proves whether a summer job or internship will benefit you more or lead to employment.   Take the time to separate the signal from the noise. What skills do you want to gain? Is there something you want to learn more about? What type of work environment do you want to be in?

Your professional development needs a balance of change and continuity. Challenge yourself with new experiences, but don’t take lightly your ability to grow in a familiar environment. Camp Alleghany may just be the place for such growth.

Ellie Frazier, Camp & Staff Alum, Camp Alleghany for Girls