“Creating Advantage in College”

Published on Psychology Today (http://my.psychologytoday.com) Created Dec 2 2011 – 7:04am

By Steve Baskin

When I started my career as a camp director in 1993, my mother (the “Silver Fox”) shared the following thought with me: “summer camp is like college, but just a little bit early”.

Being a strong believer in my mother’s wisdom, I found myself thinking about this statement fairly often. Summer camp had been a huge part of my personal development as a young man, and had even found its way into my college and graduate school applications. Yet the idea that “camp was like college” did not seem to make sense to me at the time.

Over the past 16 years, I have found that this idea is actually a profound one.

Three years ago, we were talking with a friend whose daughter was in her first year at college. Both mother and daughter had struggled mightily with the separation. “During the first semester, we would talk everyday, sometimes 5 or 6 times. She was so sad and uncomfortable away from home. It really affected her grades and social life. She is better in her second semester, and she only calls once or twice a day. I still worry about her though.”

This conversation reminded me of a speech I heard by Dr Wendy Mogel a few years ago. Dr Mogel is a nationally-known clinical psychologist and educator who wrote the best-seller parenting book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee”. She shared a story about a good friend of hers whose daughter was a freshman at college at Sarah Lawrence.

Unlike my friend, this woman’s daughter thrived in her first semester in college. She earned exceptional marks (making the Dean’s List) and she became president of the freshman class. During Parents weekend, her mother met the mother of a senior who was president of the entire student body and was weighing various job offers. The two mothers were sharing stories about their daughter’s college experience when the mother of the senior shared an unexpected thought:

“I bet your daughter went to overnight summer camp.”

“She did, but what makes you say that?”

“I am not surprised. I have noticed that my daughter’s friends who had strong freshman years all went to overnight camp at some point. The ones that really struggled did not.”

The contrast of these two freshman experiences (our friends and Wendy’s) compelled me to think about why this might be true. Here is what I came up with.

Going to college presents many challenges, three of which jump out at me:

  • Increased academic rigor (college work is simply harder than high school work)
  • Being away from home and your traditional support system (family, friends, familiar places)
  • Dealing with large amounts of uncertainty (what will classes require, how will I fit in socially, can I deal with this new roommate)

Of course, overnight camp does little to deal with the first challenge of academic rigor, but it helps substantially with both of the other challenges.

Camp helps students adjust to being away-from-home by giving them practice being away-from-home. Campers coming to camp (often as young as Kindergarten or 1st grade) get to experience being separated from home successfully. Certainly, most campers have some homesickness, but the supportive camp community and the fun activities help ease them through this initial challenge. Homesickness is natural. Children will miss their parents.

Further, we live in a society that sometimes suggests to children that they are only safe within eyeshot of their parents. Yet, we parents want our children to grow in confidence and independence so that they can live productive, fulfilling and joyous lives. Camp enables children to experience successful independence. Like college, they are away-from-home. Unlike college, they are in a community committed to their physical and emotional safety.

Camp also helps campers deal with uncertainty. The first week of camp is full of uncertainty: Who are these counselors? What are these traditions? Where do I go? Who will be my friends? Will I be successful? Just like college, there is schedule-related uncertainty (where to go and when) and social uncertainty (who, among this group of relative strangers, will be my friend).

The camper gets to experience overcoming this uncertainty. I like to think of it as strengthening the “resilience muscle.” Having done so, the next experience of uncertainty is easier to handle. The camper who comes to camp for several years gets multiple opportunities to strengthen his or her resilience muscle. By the time they go to college, they are much more confident and resilient.

So the former summer camper arriving at college as a Freshman can focus his or her energy on the challenges of academic rigor, but not worry about being away from home and the uncertainty of a new environment. Other students face all three challenges. Seen this way, it is not hard to understand how camp can help later with college.

Last summer, a long-time camp mom shared her thoughts about her oldest son going out-of-state to college. I asked her how she felt. “I’m going to miss him.”

“Are you worried about his first semester?”

“No way. He has already gone to camp for 9 years, so I know he will be fine. He is so excited to face this challenge. Camp has also helped me – I have had practice being separated from him. He is going to shine at school!”

Later that evening, my wife and I agreed on three things: First, this was one of the nicest endorsements of camp we had heard. Second, we are so happy to think that the campers who have become such an important part of our lives will have an advantage in college. Finally, the “Silver Fox,” once again, was right.

6 thoughts on ““Creating Advantage in College”

  1. This article pretty accurately describes the effects my 10 summers at Pemi had on me with, however, the additional result of actually determining my choice of returning to New Hampshire to attend Dartmouth as an undergraduate. During my 8th or 9th summer, Tom Reed, Sr. seemed alarmed that my parents were considering having me apply to a certain unnamed college, and he just said, “Why don’t you consider Dartmouth?” That was it, especially after spending a day in Hanover.
    Pemi has had many other influences on my life. In fact, after years of reflection, I cannot think of a single lifelong source of joy or one of my careers that was not initiated at Pemi:
    – from Clarence Dike sparking my love and appreciation of nature, leading to degrees in Biology and ecology.
    – from hearing fellow camper Barney Prentiss in 1960 playing banjo, leading to my career as a professional Trad Jazz musician.
    – from the beauty of Mr. Hall playing the Pathétique Sonata on the Main Lodge piano as we ambled into the Sunday evening camp service with Lower Baker Pond at sunset, sparking my career in painting.
    I am eternally grateful to Pemi and all the wonderful staff, campers, and counsellors (and my parents for sending me) for making all this happen.

  2. My Dad Max Chapman, was a Pemi counselor from 1928-1936, and an Oberlin College student, who graduated in 1930. Imagine driving 600 miles from Oberlin to Camp Pemi back in the day of early autos?! He instilled his love of athletics–specifically tennis, tumbling, and any kind of recreational experience known to mankind into my psyche, and my life has been richer because of that. I visited Pemi two summers ago with my own two sons along and it was fulfilling to see the camp that had done so much good for my Dad, his campers, and us! Thanks Pemi!

  3. I can recall discussing this same issue with other freshmen at Lafayette College in the fall of 1971. Those of us who had been to summer camp were well-adjusted to being at college, and were getting involved with additional activities other than just academics. But there were some classmates who were severely struggling with being away from home for the first time. They hadn’t even had a chance to go to two-week camp. I recall one or two, who had the hardest time, who didn’t even make it through the first semester that year.

    Prior to Pemi, I had attended a number of two-week camps several times. In 1966, the first summer that I was a “boy” at Pemi, I remember getting very homesick about the third week into the camp season. I remember vividly how Al Fauver had a heart-to-heart talk with me, and he asked me what kinds of activities I was interested in, and if there were any that I hadn’t had a chance to participate in yet. The next chance we had to change “occupations,” I made sure to request those activities. It took a while before I got into some of them (like riflery), but I also got involved in the camp band, G&S “Trial By Jury,” did the half-mile swim so I could go out in the sailboats and canoes, and, of course, backpacking (borrowing from Camp Pemi an Army surplus wood-and-canvas “pack” frame that I could tie my canvas duffle bag to). The sight of Wildcat Ski Area from the Presidential Range at the age of 12, almost 13, made me think about how much I loved the summer weather in New Hampshire, and I sure loved to ski, so wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in New Hampshire all the time? Well, I certainly did keep coming back to Pemi, and that image of skiing at Wildcat was something that drew me back to New Hampshire as a college graduate. And I have been living here ever since. I finally skied Wildcat, and Attitash, last month, along with my brother Tom, and my other best friend, another Jim Bingham. Another checkmark on “the bucket list” for me.

  4. Interesting comment, Jim, about your 3rd week at Pemi being the one where the “stretch” began. Many parents asume that the 1st time at camp should be for 1 or 2 weeks. While every residential camp provides experience away from home, the life skills mentioned in this article are much more likely to take hold in a 3+-week session. The magic wand for developing confidence, creating deep friendships, learning time management and “strengthening the resilience muscle” is time itself. It allows homesickness and uncertainty to come and go, leaving a boy feeling 10-feet tall. You’ll be glad to know that Al Fauver, now 95, is still an inspirational presence at Camp Pemi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *