It’s hard to believe, but there’s a place where Edward Snowden, Benghazi and Kim Kardashian don’t dominate the news — well actually, Kim always finds a way.

For the eighth summer in the last nine years, I get to go back to the woods. To a world of dirty cabins, mass-produced food and fun on the beach. I’ll be spending my summer at one of the largest camps in the world where the outdoors around me is my office. And for the third straight year, I’m going to be a counselor — this time for 14-year-olds.

It’s really a strange situation. At home, I’m still very much a child. Sure, I can live in Ann Arbor and make it to CVS or Meijer if I need groceries or other supplies, but for the most part, when I’m at home, my parents still take care of me at this point in my life.

But at camp, my hierarchy is turned upside down. I’m the most important person in these kids’ lives. I’m truly the closest thing these campers have to a parent for the three or six weeks they spend at camp. In the previous years I have worked, I have experienced the most challenging moments of the life, but also the most rewarding. A high score on an exam is an incredible feeling, but few things compare to helping a camper successfully water ski for the first time.

Much has been said about the benefits of young children going to camp. However, the benefits of being a counselor shouldn’t go unnoticed either — especially since each year, many college-age students face the choice of embarking on a hopefully paid internship or becoming a counselor at both sleepaway and day camps. And while it’s true that counselors have been stereotyped as lazy and simply trying to avoid a real-world job, the return — if we want to talk about investments — has the potential to be immense if a full effort is put forth.

The opportunity for leadership is tremendous. In my experience, I have had the chance to plan and execute unique, inspiring programs for kids with many different staff members. It has helped my ability to work with others, develop interpersonal skills and learn to know when to take charge and when to take a step back — a skill that is a challenge for anyone to develop. This also happens when doing day-to-day tasks with the 10 or so kids I’m responsible for. I’m their leader and am expected to take care of them.

Like any job, there are ups and downs. But in no other activity have I found my confidence rise like it does as a counselor. Parents across the country are counting on counselors — remind you, complete strangers — to ensure their children conquer their fears, make friends and attain positive memories. It’s a responsibility not to be taken lightly, because the interaction between camper and counselor changes lives for good or for bad. So at the end of the
summer, when a parent thanks me for my work, near-euphoria ensues.

Perhaps, most importantly, being a counselor thrives on the service-above-self philosophy. There are many professions — all of them, actually — that demand their members to put the community’s needs above those of the individual. It’s a concept hard to grasp and something I still struggle with. But if service-above-self can be mastered in the camp setting, then where can’t it be?

The desire to pursue that resume-building internship is tempting, no doubt. On the surface, spending a summer in the woods with a bunch of little kids appears like a colossal waste of time. Taken seriously, though, it doesn’t have to be. To have one of the best jobs in the world before turning 20 is surreal.

I know I’m not ready to enter the “real world” where suits and ties replace Nike shorts and flip-flops. But the opportunity to essentially be a child’s parent and a role model sure seems like one of the most “real” jobs out there.

Derek Wolfe can be reached at dewolfe@umich.edu.

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