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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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“I’m more in my own skin:” NU student camp counselors reflect on the meaning their work brings them

Photo courtesy of Joey Pollack and Camp Kesem. Photo by Sam Shapiro
Campers and staff members at Northwestern’s chapter of Camp Kesem in Fredonia, WI, gathered together during this summer’s first session in June.

Weinberg freshman Lauren Levinson, Weinberg junior Joey Pollack and Communication junior Alexa Goldstein don’t know each other. They study political science and philosophy, environmental science, and theatre and psychology, respectively. 

But these three strangers at Northwestern are connected by their summer experiences: they’re all overnight camp counselors. The experience is not an uncommon one among NU students. According to a counselor at Northwestern’s chapter of Camp Kesem, 34 NU students are counselors there alone this year. Executive Director of Northwestern Career Advancement Mark Presnell said it’s impossible to estimate how many other students share this summer job. 

“I could be doing internships, going abroad, those things will always be there — but (camp gives me) the chance to really impact someone’s life,” Goldstein said. “Even if you just leave a fingerprint on a kid’s life, that makes it worth it.”

A sense of place

Every summer, Goldstein and Levinson drive three to four hours to their respective camps, which are both in Pennsylvania.

“It’s shady when you drive in, with lots of tall trees, and seems like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” Goldstein said. “And then it really feels like you’re transported, with sunlight streaming in through the trees.” 

Levinson said her camp is on a big hill in a partly-wooded area. The campers and counselors live in log cabins, but activities like archery, climbing, swimming and crafting happen outside. Levinson said there are “real buildings” for the bathrooms and dining hall.

According to Levinson, camp has a consistent sound. 

“I hear cheering, I hear yelling, I hear banging on the tables, I hear camp songs, I hear the nature, I hear laughter,” she said. 

“There’s really something special in the air,” Goldstein said.

Old and new ties to camp

Levinson, 19, and Goldstein, 21, both have lifelong ties to their workplaces. They started as campers when they were in elementary school, returning summer after summer to their camps before eventually becoming staff members. 

“It’s my home,” Levinson said.

But Pollack had never experienced Camp Kesem, where he worked for five days in June, before arriving. He had also never been a camp counselor before. 

“I didn’t really know anything about it,” he said.

Camp Kesem is a free overnight camp offered to children whose parents or guardians have been affected by cancer. Northwestern’s chapter is based in Wisconsin and staffed mostly by NU student volunteers, holding two five-day sessions in the summer. 

It was hearing the way his friend, a counselor from last year, spoke about Kesem that ultimately pushed Pollack to say yes to the job, which was able to take him on last-minute. 

“The way she talked about it was just with so much love and excitement, that I was just like, ‘How can I not?’” he said. “She makes it sound so transformative.”

After working in June, Pollack decided to return for the second session in August. He said the idea that he could positively affect even one camper helped him a lot.

Goldstein shared a similar perspective of her interpersonal impact creating meaning for her. She said she works to “give (the campers) their own power” through her interactions with them. 

A separate world

Both Levinson and Goldstein said their camps only allowed limited technology for purposes like playing music, if anything. Campers at both places aren’t allowed to have their phones with them, which Goldstein said made the environment feel freer.

“I feel out of touch with everyone and everything outside of camp when I’m here,” Goldstein said. 

Pollack reflected on the differences between camp and the outside world. He said a big part of camp is being yourself and being silly, and there was “really no embarrassment” there.

“(At camp,) I’m goofier, I think I’m more in my own skin, I laugh more and I’m louder,” Levinson said. “It’s not a freedom I have anywhere else.” 

Reconciling camp and Northwestern’s pre-professional culture

Levinson is going to be at camp for two weeks this summer, which is the shortest session she has ever had. The rest of the time, she is doing an internship at a Washington, D.C. law firm.

“There was for sure pressure (to do the internship),” Levinson said. “Basically everyone I know (at school) is doing something impressive.”

Presnell said the reason NCA can’t estimate counselor numbers is that “camp counselor” wasn’t an option on the summer plans survey.

Levinson said it seems like after this summer, she’ll be obligated, not just encouraged, to get serious.

“I feel like freshman summer is the last summer you have to have fun, and I’m missing out on that a little.”

Growing up with camp

Both Levinson and Goldstein said camp shaped them as people. 

“It was always a place that would catch me and lift me up instead of pushing me down,” Goldstein said. “Especially as I’m entering my senior year, it feels like my childhood’s ending.”  

Goldstein said she tells her parents that camp is the best gift they ever gave her. She said if she could give her future kids one thing, it would be camp.

Goldstein said she struggles with the thought of having to leave camp behind.

“It makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “I wish I could stay here forever.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Clairegardner01

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