Working at a U.S. summer camp – is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Daniel Phelan

In search of a way to make the most of your summer months? You might want to consider working at a summer camp in the U.S. 

The U.S. summer camp, the dream sold to us by movies such as ‘The Parent Trap’ and ‘Wet Hot American Summer’.

For many Irish students, going to the United States to work on a J-1 visa is almost a rite of passage. However, there seem to be only two routes to go down. There’s the stereotypical “let’s work in a bar in Chicago [interchangeable with any major U.S. city] for the summer and go out every night” or the slightly tamer summer camp option.

The summer camp route is the road less travelled and perhaps looked upon with some disdain.

Education and Training student, Frankie Cullen, has applied to work at a camp this coming summer and cites the difficulty in getting a job at home as one of the reasons, “I live in the country and it can be difficult to find work, I don’t drive yet either so jobs are few and far between. At least I know that because I’ve applied to an agency, they will find me a camp”.

Many Irish students that find employment at camps are brought over as ‘camp counsellors’ and are often unsure what exactly that vague term entails. “Indeed”, the American job listing company characterises the position as “responsible for the overall supervision of campers with the aim of providing a healthy, safe and enjoyable camp environment and experience”.

Third-year primary teaching student, Cathal Mongey, worked at a summer camp located in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania last summer and shared his experience. “Going in, I actually didn’t really know what to expect or what role I’d fulfil within the camp itself. I knew I was going to be a counsellor but I wasn’t altogether sure on what that meant.”

Having gotten a summer’s worth of experience under his belt, Mongey is already signed up to work another summer in the Poconos. After being thrown in at the deep end, he sees his position with more clarity now.

“I had to look after the welfare, well-being and whereabouts of my campers at all times. I had to live with up to 20 campers in a cabin with other counsellors, take them to breakfast, lunch and dinner and ensure the kids got to their sports sessions on time”.

While it sounds like you’re never left to your own devices, Mongey reiterates the constant challenges that tend to present themselves. “There’s stuff that just isn’t in the job description. The kids get homesick and most of the time, it’s you that has to comfort them and put them at ease. It’s challenging, but the most challenging things are also the most rewarding. They’re young kids, and this is their first time away from home and you’re the reason they get through the week. It’s unreal. Their parents are incredibly appreciative of what you do too”.

Mongey thoroughly enjoyed his experience but has a word of warning for people that go down the camp route. “I was lucky because I applied to the camp directly. I was told that if you leave it in the hands of the visa agency, the process can take longer and you can end up at a camp that might not necessarily be to your liking”.

Instead, he recommends doing your due diligence. “Research the type of camps that there are because there’s just so many,” he said. “I knew I wanted to work at a sports camp, one that hired a lot of staff because I wanted to meet people too. I think they hired over 150 international staff last summer, and I met some fantastic people from all around the world. It’s an experience I won’t forget and I’m already itching to get back out there next summer.”

Daniel Phelan

Image Credit: Daniel Phelan