“‘In the beginning,’ so goes many a great story. These familiar words beckon us across a threshold, often transporting us into unknown worlds and novel experiences. So too our lives are filled with many such ‘beginnings’ — new jobs, relationships, adventures, and even the inception of life itself.” (Conforti, 2007).
As young people navigate transition, such as from middle to high school and high school to college, they sometimes experience difficulties, doubting their own abilities to successfully set and achieve goals, be they social, emotional, educational, or vocational. Helping youth in transition has been a key focus of CARE and of The Jed Foundation (JED), which says, “Transitioning into adulthood can bring big changes and intense challenges.”
Threshold concepts are many things, including troublesome, irreversible, integrative, and liminal (giving the individual new space to traverse). Perhaps most notably, they can be transformative, allowing the individual to see things in new ways (Meyer & Land, 2003).
Sarah Doenmez, academic dean at Dublin High School in New Hampshire and author of a recent article published by the National Association of Independent Schools, explains, “Learning thresholds are often the points at which students experience difficulty and are often troublesome as they require a letting go of customary ways of seeing things, of prior familiar views. This entails an uncomfortable ontological shift as, in many respects, we are what we know.”
Doenmez goes on to say, “As educators, we tacitly understand liminality as part of the learning process. And yet we probably leave it up to our students to deal with the discomfort of liminality on their own or gloss over it. Often teachers encourage students to minimize their uncertainty and confusion, exhorting them to show grit, to push through this stage to a resolution . . . Students must dwell in the discomfort and find their own routes to a next stage of understanding. As teachers, we need to affirm the feelings students experience, create time and exercises for them to make sense of their experience, encourage persistence, and reward them for the process of learning. We also need to help students see their progress and voice the changes they are undergoing. When we legitimize and value their struggles and walk with them through these passages, we are helping students undergo transformation” (Doenmez, 2018).
Summer mentors can help young people through these transformative times
Paul Jacquiery, a middle school teacher and a seasoned camp dad (who introduced us to the concept of threshold experiences), has some ideas. He wrote in an email, “Trips and camp adventures changed the internal narrative from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’ for both my children, Ali and Erin. For Ali, swimming the perimeter of a lake with friends redefined what was achievable. Erin’s group worked tirelessly to climb several mountain peaks. Returning home, it was easier to take the lead at school and to contextualize their challenges. The foundation for being a middle school president (Ali) and team captain (Erin) was rooted in those camp experiences.”
Specialty camp curriculum can focus on basic life skills, social and emotional skills, and mental health/substance abuse literacy. Each suggests key challenges and the need for assistance and support. Such skills can also be addressed in camp curriculum created intentionally with teens in mind.
JED says of life skills, “There are many important lessons youth need to learn while growing up which are not taught in a classroom. As they mature, kids typically get better at handling their physical needs like sleep and nutrition; their organizational needs like managing their time and daily activities; and managing their ‘stuff’ (including clothes, managing money, etc.). We know that young people who go to college or live on their own lacking in these basic skills can have a harder time with the transition and might even be at higher risk for emotional problems.”
With regard to the development of social and emotional skill sets, JED advises, “Everyone has an array of thoughts, feelings, and relationships with others. As children grow up, these thoughts, feelings, and relationships develop and mature. These qualities will have a profound impact on our lives — especially as young people transition into independent life at college or adulthood in general. These developing qualities . . . include things like: identifying our emotions, knowing our values, self-esteem, resilience and grit, and relating to others.”
Finally, with regard to mental health/substance abuse literacy, JED offers, “During the teen and young adult years, it is not uncommon for emotional and substance use problems to appear. Therefore, it is really valuable for both you and your child to be able to identify the factors that can support emotional health and the indications that trouble may be emerging” (Set to Go, 2018b).
Leadership Outcomes at Summer Camp
According to the American Camp Association (ACA), “For more than 150 years, camp has been changing lives — allowing all children to feel successful, especially those who may struggle with traditional educational settings. Camp is full of fun and excitement, but it is so much more — developing children who are better equipped to lead in the 21st century with skills such as independence, empathy, the ability to work as part of a team, and a broader world view.” ACA adds that camps are also safe, nurturing places where children improve their social skills and gain self-confidence (American Camp Association, 2018).
Indeed, our 2015 data indicated, “Study participants who attended a summer camp were significantly more likely to state an interest in social entrepreneurship than those who had not attended. Why? They cited the influence of counselors, especially in mentoring them to develop social and leadership skills; assisting them in obtaining social and material resources to start new projects; and guiding them in understanding such projects and identifying other mentors. Young people who had started their own businesses or were highly interested in doing so were especially influenced by camp counselors who taught them how to gather resources needed to achieve goals” (Mischel & Wallace, 2015).
Data collected from more than 100 youth attending two summer camp leadership programs during the 2018 season provided some interesting insights. For example, campers believed that, as a result of their leadership training, they gained a better understanding of their own skills and how to manage themselves and others. They also identified themselves as more entrepreneurial in business and more inclined to engage in social entrepreneurship. Finally, they indicated they were more competent, independent, and team-oriented.
These outcomes confirm that summer camps produce better leaders.
Activities that promote such outcomes include counselors allowing campers to take on additional responsibilities (through leadership roles and team-building exercises) and encouraging the campers to reflect on those experiences throughout their stay. Campers might take part in sharing skills they know and teaching them to others, or they may be challenged to complete a physical or mental task they thought was not possible. Camp experiences should expose individuals to new challenges and stretch their abilities to go beyond their comfort zones. In doing this, campers increase their confidence levels and their ability to work with others in a team.
One 17-year-old told us, “Through this leadership program I learned how to put myself out there, contributing to the group discussion and decision-making. It also taught me responsibility and fairness, after all, I played a big part in all of the decisions regarding the girls in my resident unit, the activities they would do, and the best approach to the more adult conversations we had to have with them. Whatever mistake may have come from my actions, I had to be absolutely the one to fix it, and that taught me a lot about taking charge of a task and taking responsibility if something goes wrong. I learned how to work around other people’s needs and problems and how to make more effective compromises, both in working with other people and in managing my time.”