Camp to college: How Jewish camp prepares children for college and life

Camp to college: How Jewish camp prepares children for college and life

Spring is here, and that means more than just April showers and May flowers. Families with younger children are feverishly packing for overnight camp, while families of high school juniors and seniors are dealing with the stress of where to go to college and the overwhelming application process.

Departures for camp or college are both incredibly important inflection points in the life of a young person. While they are vastly different stages of life, they are similar in many ways, and both can be the source of stress and anxiety. In both situations a child is leaving their home to live in a new place. They are adapting to a new environment, making new friends, and developing independence. They now eat their meals not at home but in dining halls. (For some kids, like my own, escaping mom’s cooking was a source of joy, not stress — but that’s another story.)

We’re living in challenging times, where young people have experienced many years of a pandemic and its devasting impact on their social development. The surgeon general has declared a mental health emergency for our young people. When you add in the pressures of social media, parents are constantly looking for ways to help their children adjust to challenging and ever-changing times.

These normal stresses can be heightened when children leave the nest. According to a 2016 UCLA study of college freshmen, 70% experience homesickness and loneliness in their first year at college. A 2021 University of Indiana study of students entering college found that 53% experienced an increase in mental and emotional exhaustion.

There’s good news: sending your children to Jewish camp when they’re younger can help ease their transition when it comes time to go away to college.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been the assistant director of a Jewish overnight camp for the past 15 years, and now I’m a full time Jewish camp mental health professional. I’ve been even more lucky to be the mom of three young men. Two of them have recently graduated from college, and one is in the throes of the application process as I write this. I speak from direct experience as a camp director, a mental health professional, and a mom of boys whose experience at Jewish overnight camp made the transition to going away to college infinitely less daunting and in fact, incredibly easier.

I’m always looking for a Jewish angle, so here are seven ways Jewish camp prepares your child for college (the number seven is an especially significant number in Judaism):

1. Selecting a roommate: the informal Jewish overnight camp network consisting of myriad social media groups was an integral piece in helping to find a roommate. My children knew that if their potential roommate had spent time in overnight camp, sharing a bunk or cabin with many other people, they would likely be a good roommate. They knew how to live as part of a community and let go of the small things that can sometimes be annoying when you are living with someone else.

2. Finding Jewish community in troubling times: Because I sent my kids to Jewish overnight camp, I felt confident that they would find their way to Jewish spaces and organizations in college. This is especially important with rising antisemitism. The enormous Jewish pride fostered by camp allowed them to thrive and continue to build upon their already stable Jewish identities. Studies have shown that Jewish camp is the strongest institution for developing proud
young Jews.

3. Social development and learning: The American Camping Association Studies have shown that overnight camp is an excellent opportunity for children to gain new experiences, make friends, and develop important skills. However, many parents may not realize that these skills also can help prepare their children for college. Children who attend camp learn to communicate effectively, collaborate with others, and form relationships with people from diverse backgrounds. Not only do they learn the skills of making new friends, but also the ability to live in a community; they don’t have to like everybody, but they need to be respectful to everybody. These skills are crucial for college, where students are often required to work in groups, participate in discussions, and build relationships with people from different cultures and backgrounds.

4. Developing independence: The independence they learn at camp will develop children’s ability to make their own decisions, handle responsibilities, and figure out who they are and who they want to become. Even the simplest independent tasks can catalyze a sense of newfound maturity, like making their bed and folding their laundry by themselves. For many, college is the first time a person is totally independent. Overnight camp helps create a sense of autonomy before a child moves on to the next developmental stage.

5. Developing grit and resilience: Additionally, overnight camp can help grow resilience and adaptability. Campers learn to handle new situations, overcome obstacles, and bounce back from setbacks. These skills are invaluable in college, where students may face unexpected challenges, encounter difficult coursework, and must adjust to new environments.

6. Entering as children, leaving as leaders: Campers develop leadership skills at overnight camp. They may be given responsibilities such as leading a group activity, supervising younger campers, or organizing an event. Following their camper experience, many young people choose to become a camp counselor as their first real job. These experiences can help develop leadership qualities such as delegation and communication, which are necessities in college and beyond.

7. Loving to learn: Overnight camp helps foster a love of learning. Campers engage in a wide range of activities, from sports and arts to outdoor adventure and environmental education. By exploring new interests and developing new skills, children learn to appreciate the value of lifelong learning. A love of learning is an important Jewish value that can help prepare students for college, where they’ll be exposed to a wide range of subjects and encouraged to explore their interests.

For parents who are reading this and saying, “It’s too late. I never sent my kid to Jewish camp, and college is almost here,” it is never too late. Encourage your child to apply to work at camp this summer so that they gain all these benefits before beginning their college experience.

Parents and their kids are under a great deal of stress as they are urged to beef up their college resumes. Camp can seem frivolous when compared to summers doing high level internships, SAT/ACT prep, or playing an obscure sport or instrument they don’t really like. Camp gives you the tools and skills to succeed in college and beyond, and that’s what matters most.

Heather Klein, MSW, is the HFNJ Community Coordinator at NJY Camps. Her work, supported by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, is centered on enhancing year-round mental health support for the NJY Camps community. She and her husband are proud parents of three sons, each of whom is a proud Jewish camp alumnus, and a mentsch too.

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