Written by Rachel Rubin
Tom Rosenberg is the President/CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA), a community of summer camp professionals working to promote youth development through the preservation, promotion, and improvement of the camp experience. In addition to his variety of volunteer roles in ACA (e.g., treasurer, board member), Tom has worked in the camp profession for nearly three decades as a camp director.
Summer camps are an important context for the development of natural mentoring relationships (i.e., the formation of close camper-staff relationships). Here, we talk to Tom about his perspective on mentoring in the summer camp context.
Chronicle (C): What inspired you to become the President/CEO of the American Camp Association?
Tom Rosenberg (TR): I have been a professional camp director for most of my career. Last year the American Camp Association reached out to see if I would be interested in being CEO and I thought it would be important to advocate for and elevate the entire field of American camp. I have worked in both for-profit and nonprofit camping and have been a national volunteer and board member with ACA for years. The field is growing and widening now with university-based camps, specialty camps, and more, and we are trying to be responsive to the wider field in terms of advocacy, research, accreditation, and professional development. There is so much opportunity to provide camp experiences for more children, youth, adults, and families.
C: How important do you feel the camper-counselor relationship is in leading to positive development among youth at camp?
TR: I see the camper-counselor relationship as an essential ingredient. The mentorship between the camper and staff member is what makes it [positive development] stick. It’s what embeds it and really helps amplify experiential outcomes. There’s good research out there on the impact of mentors. I think the relationship between camper and staff member is a wonderful example of a non-parental mentor in an intense and immersive environment, especially at resident camps where there is a lot of contact time. Especially because of the age differential [campers and staff members being relatively close in age], they’re pretty connected. I think the camper-staff relationship is a critical piece of the puzzle, but I’d really love to research the lasting benefits of being a counselor/mentor at camp.
C: What do you see as the most important part of the camper-counselor relationship?
TR: Trust is key to having an impact. A real relationship where there’s trust and regularity. Without trust, mentors can potentially have a negative effect on campers.
C: Can you expand on what you mean by regularity?
TR: I have a 10-year-old son who is being influenced and influencing his staff every day nonstop for weeks at camp. We have mentors we see at school, youth programs, and more, but when you live in a residential community, that’s regularity. At ACA, we think immersion matters.
C: How do you see youth mentoring fitting into the camp context? Are all counselors mentors?
TR: I think all counselors are mentors to one degree or another. A lot of camps have activity specialists and ancillary staff providing support that develop impactful relationships with campers at camp. Campers are primarily mentored by cabin staff and activity staff, but we teach staff that every single staff member, whether you wash dishes or teach an activity, has an important impact on campers.
C: How do you think camps, or ACA more broadly, can facilitate the development of mentoring relationships at camp?
TR: We would like to highlight the beneficial outcomes of being a mentor in a camp experience and learn more about how to articulate the value of camp in the workplace. There are 21st century work skills being developed at camp. It’s all about problem solving, critical thinking, learning how to communicate and perhaps most importantly, altruism. Working at camp reinforces giving, which reinforces contribution and altruism, which reinforces life-long servant leadership. We want to be able to articulate this pathway to employers and we need help explaining with compelling evidence that working and mentoring at camp is a far better college summer employment opportunity than many summer internships.
C: Where do you think staff training comes in when considering mentoring in the camp context?
TR: Camp directors train their staff members to see themselves as mentors. I know of camps where the title of the position is “mentor” instead of counselor. The key in staff training is to help explain what being a mentor means. Most camp directors try to design the structure of camp to have a variety of staff personalities in each cabin (each cabin group having about 2 to 4 staff members) so that kids have the greatest opportunity to find mentors they can easily connect with.
Also, one of the most powerful stories of camp is mentorship. That is, the secret to great camp is great staff. If you have an outstanding staff culture you’re going to have an amazing camp. There’s peer mentoring that happens among staff members and that bleeds over into the way everyone treats each other.
C: I know ACA has made a concerted effort to do more research and get camps involved in research in recent years. How, if it all, do you see mentoring becoming involved in the research agenda of ACA?
TR: Yes, we see mentoring getting involved in the research agenda. Research is one of ACA’s strategic initiatives and I expect it will continue to expand and grow.
C: What is your hope for the development of camp in the next few years? (and/or your hope for mentoring within the camp setting)?
TR: I’m hoping we can get some fundamental work done in research around the benefits of being a mentor at camp and more accurately describe the joint benefits of the relationship between campers and staff members. I want to see how those relationships play out over time. I believe that the mentor really influences the mentee in so many ways.
C: When you were growing up, did you have a mentor?
TR: I’ve been lucky to have had wonderful mentors in my life. I was raised by a single parent—my mom. So, having great role models, especially as a teenager, was essential to my development as a youth and my career choices. One of the outlets I found for my youthful enthusiasm was being involved in scouting. We went backpacking and that led me back to camp as a staff member. My most impactful mentor was my own camp director. I was also lucky to have had a particularly great counselor when I was 10 who was an early mentor—approachable, fun, and a good listener. I still maintain my relationship with both him and my former camp director after all these years.
C: What is the one thing you want people to know about the summer camp world?
TR: I’m eager to help the public understand how deeply impactful camp experiences can be. Where else are kids and young adults offered immersive, tech-free, deeply human experiences where they can practice 21st century learning experiences like critical thinking, problem solving, relationship building, altruism, leadership, and creativity?