From Campers to Counselors: Huskies Carry on Summer Youth Program Tradition

A Michigan Tech logo in white on the back of a teal shirt in the foreground with a side profile of one young man and eight other young people wearing teal polo shirts that match
A Michigan Tech logo in white on the back of a teal shirt in the foreground with a side profile of one young man and eight other young people wearing teal polo shirts that match
Michigan Tech Summer Youth Program Counselors earn their official shirts after a full week of comprehensive training.

DCs, Deskies, RCs and SYAs—Michigan Technological University Summer Youth Program Counselors wear different hats, but all 60 of the inspiring go-getters, many of them former SYP campers, undergo the same rigorous training.

Week-long programs, which run from mid-June through early August, offer middle- through high school-age young people experiences in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM), along with fostering entrepreneurship and creativity. From aerospace, blacksmithing and coding, to forensic science, mechanical engineering and wildlife ecology, instruction by Michigan Tech faculty and graduate students immerses campers in what they can learn, how to go about learning it and where those skills can take them. Knowing the possibilities and seeing potential pathways can shape careers.

The start of SYP 2018 was delayed one week by an epic mid-June storm that knocked out power and washed out roadways in portions of the Keweenaw Peninsula. By week two, flood recovery was well underway and it was all systems go. Student counselors, many of them former SYP campers, were ready and eager to bring on summer-long learning fun.

And that's important, because the carefully selected counselors are at the core of a program that focuses on extraordinary explorations bolstered by mentorship.  

60 people in teal and black polo shirts standing on steps in rows smiling as a group
Mission complete! The final day of Summer Youth Program 2018 counselor training. 

“We look for good role models. Nobody’s cooler than a college student,” says SYP Assistant Director Amanda Jackson. “They’re proud of Michigan Tech and want to share their majors and how they fit in here.”

Huskies Inspire by Example

Ask a couple of campers-turned-counselors how SYP affected their lives, and you begin to understand how early exposure to education and career possibilities can help young people shape lives full of purpose and accomplishment. 

"Michigan Tech’s Summer Youth Programs are what made me decide to go to Michigan Tech," says third-year biomedical engineering major Katy Beesley, a two-time camper and one of nine former campers who's a counselor this year (her dad is also a Husky). "Once I did my first program, I fell in love with the campus. Women in Engineering helped me decide what I wanted to study.

Her favorite part of the camping experience: hands-on class activities. "There was never a dull moment, and I always felt like I was learning new things. Even outside of class, there was always something to do! I remember wishing that there was more time in the day." Beesley says SYP helps young people expand their horizons. "You have the opportunity to try something new that maybe you never thought about before. There are many classes that teach new things and spark interest. Maybe you’ll find the topic you're passionate about and pursue it at Michigan Tech!"

Beesley, one of four student coordinators for SYP 2018, says her favorite aspect of being a counselor is "being with the participants almost 24/7. RCs live in Wads with the students. They take the time to learn about all of their students and encourage them to talk about what they did and what they learned each day."

There are drawbacks to night shift. "One of the hardest things about being an RC is being alert and aware when you need to be," Beesley says—that's why off-duty naps are as popular as making the door decorations that personalize camper residence halls. "The job can get tiring, but it is so worth it."  

Molly Niska, a second-year biomedical engineering major, who also plans to minor in biochemistry, says the Summer Youth Engineering Scholars Program (ESP) set her on her education and career path. One of several sponsor-supported competitive scholarship programs covering tuition, room and board and supplies, ESP campers work on individual and team projects; for example, constructing a building that can withstand an earthquake. They learn from role models working in engineering fields and experience what it's like to live on a college campus.     

“After ESP, I knew for sure that I wanted to be an engineer, I loved that in every field an engineer works to solve problems that help people,” she says. “Initially, I started as a chemical engineering major, but after the first semester I knew that I wanted to do something with medicine. Having the experience with ESP allowed me to know that even if I wasn’t fully sure what field was right for me, there were many options and Tech had them all.” 

"SYP allows you to see inside a career that you may have no experience in that could end up being something you are passionate about. Along with the engineering education, SYP provides the chance to meet lifelong friends with the same goals as you."Molly Niska, Michigan Tech Husky and SYP Counselor

Niska looks forward to inspiring new participants during each week of camp. “I want to be there for them to hear about their dreams and help them figure out what they want to do,” she says.

Huskies Mentors in Training

"As a SYP counselor, it's my job to be prepared for any and every situation," says Niska.

She and her fellow counselors undergo a full week of rigorous training beforehand, along with five hours of additional online safety training. Lead counselors train for 10 days. Experts across campus help cover the basics and beyond, including a Michigan Tech Department of Public Safety session on emergency awareness and another with the Center of Diversity and Inclusion. There's fire drill training, CPR and first aid certification for all; lifeguard training for counselors in charge of water activities and Title XI training. There are also several sessions on communication and perspective, to ensure counselors are effective at relating to each other as well as their campers. 

Over the years, the process to equip counselors with the tools they need to respond to best- and worst-case scenarios continues to expand. Jackson says she's always looking for new ways to make the training compelling and comprehensive.

SYP Orientation Week is Intense

Flashback to Wednesday, June 12, a sultry afternoon—and the third full day of SYP counselor training. Sixty college students divided into groups dash around the Wadsworth Resident Dining Hall and Annex. Prompted by the roll of giant inflatable dice, they zig-zag around a competition course—a giant game board of sorts—racing to pick up numbered laminated cards among the dozens of yellow, pink, purple, orange and green numbered cards scattered on the floor. They’re laughing, calling out directions, reading the information that has to be memorized from the back of each card and are visibly starting to sweat. 

The sun is out. The group could have done the activity on green and shady Walker Lawn, as originally planned. But Jackson and fellow SYP Assistant Director Liz Fujita, don’t play games with the weather and they don’t waffle once they’ve made a decision. There’s always a back-up plan. When gray clouds rolled in earlier that day, they moved the activity into Wads—which functions as SYP Central—where more than 1,200 campers will sleep, eat and play.

Back to the game: the point isn’t who wins—it’s about breaking the ice, bonding the team and drilling counselors on all the aspects of the program they’re required to know. The higher the card number, the more complicated the answer that must be memorized and repeated back to the game moderator. For example, a lower-number card reads: “Participants and I must wear our lanyards at all times.” A double-digit entry includes a seven-step recitation of “When driving a Michigan Tech van I will always …”  

Other training sessions throughout the week cover scholarships, dining hall etiquette, dietary questions, setting up different events and scoping out activity areas, including Keweenaw locales (there's even a McLain State Park training).

Ready to Rock and Roll

On the final day, the group comes together with Jackson and Fujita to tie up any loose ends.

“This is one of my favorite things,” says Jackson, as newly certified counselors mug for the cameras in their hard-earned teal polo shirts with white-embroidered Michigan Tech logos and a UP map.  

Summer Youth Programs are under the umbrella of the Michigan Tech Center for Educational Outreach, along with the Mind Trekkers Roadshow and College Access, a program that brings project-based STEM experiences to local young people in schools and on campus. 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.