Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The point of summer camp

I went to several different summer camps as an adolescent - one of them for six summers in a row - and worked at two more. I also spent all five of my years as an undergraduate living in the dorms.

There's an interesting connection there. The summer camps I went to and worked at were mostly populated by socioeconomically similar crowds; and almost all summer camps, whether or not they bill themselves as a pre-college experience, expose youth to many of the things that are likely to trip them up in a freshman year at a university.

There are, as I see it, three reasons why freshmen wash out. In most cases, two or more apply. The least common - by far - is that they simply cannot handle the coursework they've taken on; it is too difficult for them. College admissions are generally competitive, and introductory college coursework is generally not that difficult. The two more common reasons are a little more subtle.

The first common reason - quite obvious to anybody who has seen new students spiral into alcoholism, skip classes, or take up drugs - is inability to handle being responsible for themselves. We could break this reason into many smaller reasons if we like, but many freshmen are not prepared - in some cases, not able - to handle their day-to-day lives independently. More on this reason another day.

The second common reason is failing to adapt to their new environment socially. It is the freshmen who go home every weekend who, one weekend, stay home. They are homesick, they have difficulty making new friends, they miss their dog, their siblings, their boyfriend or girlfriend back home, and their parents. They can't handle dorm life - the roommate, the communal hall, perhaps a shared bathroom and kitchen.

And this seems a most practical reason for packing your kid off to summer camp, where they can learn to cope with homesickness, with making new friends in an environment where they already know few, if any, of the others, and learn to cope with a communal lifestyle similar to the one common in the "college experience." I can't help but think that kids that went off to camp just might turn out to handle that experience a little bit better. I wonder if there have been any good studies done - it's very difficult to control for the socioeconomic factors here...

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