The Most Important Question You Can Ask an Alumni Staff Applicant

By Tom Holland March 17, 2017

Published by the American Camp Association on February 20, 2017. For original post, please visit:

We love having alumni apply to work for our program. Following their years of participation as campers, we ask them to step away for a year or two before they can reengage as a staff member. We encourage them to go and have other experiences and be a member of other teams. We ask them to get another job and build their resume.  We want them to return to us as applicants who have had more experiences than we can offer. Most importantly, we want them to be emotionally and mentally prepared for those moments where they transition from participant to worker. We want them to be ready for those instances where the “magic of camp” is now a job.

This is one of the trickiest things we do in this business: making the decision on hiring the great former camper. Hiring staff is some of the most important work we do, and we have talked this in blog posts about how to consider MESH when thinking about hiring.  Still, the former camper adds a new dynamic. It is general knowledge in the business of camp that a great camper does not necessarily make a great staff member. However, we are in the relationship business, and there are many factors that can come into play as we make this decision. Parents sometimes get involved. Younger siblings who are current campers weigh on our mind. Additionally, the best and the worst of this applicant is usually known, making it easier to hire the person we know versus the one we do not.

Still, none of these considerations are as important as the questions we must ask ourselves about the applicant: are they ready to turn the corner and go from camper to staff member? Are they ready to come behind the curtain and make the magic?  Are they ready to be a role model to other campers?  Or are they coming back for just themselves?

Some time ago, I was interviewing a former camper who was the essence of a great camper.  Having attended the program multiple years, she had found her home in camp and all of us had seen her transformation from a shy child into a kid that was leading the activities and making the camp a better place. As we knew her so well, I cut straight to the chase in her interview and asked her the most important question we can of our former campers who want to join the ranks of camp staff:

“Why do you want to come back and work for camp?”

Her answer spoke of her feeling of camp as home. She spoke of having some tough times the last few years since her time at camp and how she wanted to get back to the place she loved so much.  She spoke of her role models who still worked at the camp that she wanted to reconnect with.

Importantly, as I have repeatedly looked back on the notes of this call, she never referenced the campers she wanted to guide and instruct. For her, to return to camp was about her.  I looked past this one moment when we offered her a position. We knew her so well and knew her family well. Our hiring team did not think it of her employment as a gamble.

What I now realize is that when in process of hiring, the question of “why do you want to come and work at camp?” is the most important question I can ask.  The answers tell a bit about why the applicant wants this and what they hope to get out the experience. When interviewing former campers, the question also might provide an indication of certain mental, emotional, and social health (MESH) concerns that might impact the staff member in the summer.

For that alumni staff member that we had in our program, we found that much had happened in her life since she was a camper. She came back to the camp for her emotional needs at the time and not the campers.  Ultimately, she needed more immediate medical support, and we supported her as she left our program to seek this assistance.

In this instance, our team suffered because of the energy we put into this one employee who ultimately departed the camp early. But, more importantly, a great alumnus of ours suffered because we did not ask her the tough questions. I know she would have been better off getting the appropriate advice from our team to take another year to seek out the support she needed at that moment.

Our duty as camp professionals means that we must ask the tough questions of those who want to work in this great industry. Additionally, it means our support for our former campers must go beyond June, July, and August and sometimes beyond their teenage years. When they struggle with issues of mental, social and emotional health, camp is viewed as a safe place where they can go.  Knowing this provides us with the opportunity to establish support systems that do not detract from the overall program and provides support when it is necessary.

Tom Holland is the owner/director of Wilderness Adventures in Jackson Hole, WY. He is also the former chief executive officer of the American Camp Association and member of the Healthy Camps Committee.