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What we Learned from an International Exchange Participant Survey

What we Learned from an International Exchange Participant Survey

Hey everyone,

It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me in a blog. I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been crazy busy, and while yes, I was busy finishing my PhD, the main reason I’ve taken a hiatus from writing blogs is because of COVID-19. I’m not going to lie, it’s got me a bit bummed out. Renée and I were ready to offer our April 2020 course to over 70 participants and then… well, you know what happened. Ever since I’ve struggled to remain positive and dedicate much mental energy into thinking about the summer camp exchange program. But…

My good friend and colleague reminded me of all this incredible data that we collected a little while ago about the summer camp exchange experience. I realized that I hadn’t analyzed it yet and by doing that and reflecting on what it all meant really made me excited about camp exchange programs getting up and running again! So, let me tell you about this study.

I could talk to you about how our recruitment procedures weren’t totally scientifically solid, how the data isn’t super strong, or what the limitations are of the study, but let’s be honest. I care about that much more than you do, and all that belongs in an academic paper (which, I might write so stay tuned!). Instead, let me give you the basics.

We had 364 people take part in our survey. These people came from all over the world (including places like Australia, New Zealand, England, Poland, Mexico, and so many more) and worked at camps in the United States or Canada. Most people worked at camp for one or two summers, but we had five people who worked at camp for 25 years or more, including one who worked for 39 years! We asked them questions about their reasons for wanting to work at camp (i.e., their motivations) and why they chose to return or not return to work at camp overseas. This is what we learned…

On a scale of 1-6, overall, the biggest motivating factors were experiencing living in a different culture (4.98 on average), learning about summer camp culture (4.79 on average), and traveling in the United States (4.59). The least motivating factor was… you guessed it – making money (2.83 on average).

The most common reasons why people wanted to return to work at camp was that they had an emotional attachment to camp, they enjoyed the work, they had positive social relationships, and they felt like they were making a difference. The most common reasons why people did not return to work a camp were the summer schedule conflicted with other educational opportunities, change in life circumstances (think partners, no longer in uni), poor pay, and that camp work wasn’t related to career goals.

We also asked people how transitioning home was after being abroad at camp and more than half the participants (60.8%) said it was difficult. We asked participants what the most challenging part of returning home was. Answers included things like missing new friends, no longer being constantly surrounded by people, and going back to reality. One participant commented “no one at home understood the value of summer camp” while another said “no one else had changed but I felt like I had a lot.” These comments show that coming home is hard and that a lot of people experience really profound self-transformation while at camp!

This information is interesting for potential J1 exchange participants, sponsor agencies, and camps too! Our survey showed that people want to go to camp to learn about other cultures and try new things. Camps and sponsor agencies can support participants in this by celebrating the culture of camp and helping participants explore the local areas on days off. Excursions and tours in local cities put on by sponsor agencies prior to camp orientation days might help participants get that taste of local culture prior to arriving at camp. 

Our survey also shows that, overall, participants really enjoy their exchange experiences and many people would return to camp, if they could! Agencies can continue to harness this excitement about camp and explore ways that participants can be supported in sharing their love of camp once returning home. 

People who are interested in going overseas to camp should think about the power of this experience that former participants describe. It’s clear that a summer at camp can change you in incredible ways and you’re guaranteed to make some friends for life!

Thanks to everyone who participated in the survey! Your insights are really valuable to us and to the industry as whole. This little survey could be the start of something great and help elevate the value of a summer camp exchange experience for more young people all over the world!

When You Grow Up

So, what do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s a classic question that so many young people are asked, in one way, shape or form. Maybe it’s “what do you want to be?”, “what do you want to do for work”, or even as simple as, “what’s next?” For some, they have an answer and for others, they have no idea. Regardless, a work-travel experience like summer camp can make you think differently and approach your experiences in a whole new way.

When I went to camp for the first time, I had an answer. I wanted to be a secondary school physical education teacher. In fact, I was going to a five-year university program to get my bachelor’s degrees in Education and Physical Education. I did follow through with my formal education and graduate the academic year after I first worked a camp, but my work experience drastically changed my path and ultimately, what I want to do.

I met so many incredible people who came from countries I’d never been to and had experiences I’d never even dreamed of. This made me put my idea of what my future would be on hold. I decided to travel to Australia and live, work, and travel there for 6 months. The friendships I made at summer camp deepened and the connections I made there took me across Australia. I stayed in friends’ homes and saw how they lived and interacted with the world. It made me question my own ways of doing so. This experience shaped me in so many ways – I began to understand what I really value in life and what’s most important to me. For me, it’s having positive relationships and challenging myself to be better, both personally and professionally, every day.

Long story short, I went back to school – twice. I continued on to get my Master’s degree, which focused on youth development at summer camp. I am now working on my Doctorate degree, with a similar focus, but broadened to emerging adult development. As a Canadian, I never would have imagined living in the United States, but the people I met and the connections I developed at camp made me aware of the PhD program at the University of Utah. I can very easily say that without going to camp, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

All the while, my focus has been learning and development, and how to promote these for young people, but my path, is drastically different than I imagined. So many of my life experiences stem from summer camp.

None of us can predict the future, but I challenge you to think about where a summer camp experience might take you. When you make new friendships and connections, how will this shape your life? Where will you go? To a new state or country? How will working with kids change what you want to be when you grow up? Maybe you will realize it’s not for you, maybe it will reaffirm that yes, a teaching career, actually is for you. Or who knows, maybe it will show you opportunities you never even knew existed.

“Oh, the places you will go” – Dr. Seuss

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