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This summer will be my fourth with the LAS summer school, Summer in Switzerland. It will be my twentieth working for a camp or school in the summer months.  Along the way, I’ve learned a bit about summer programs, and the raison d’être of it all…
Students come back summer after summer because of friends.  I’m not saying that they don’t enjoy the activities, life in the residential hall, the excursions, and the academic classes – they do. Participant surveys show that students enjoy all parts of their busy days during the summer … but what makes summer programs so special are the friendships.
SIS participants make the sort of bond where friends hug and cry with each other when they have to go home even though they didn’t know each other just a few weeks earlier. These are friends who stay up together after lights out and discuss everything: their families, their schools, their fears, and their dreams. These are friends who will search for photos of each other in their SIS Memory Book long after the summer is over. These are friends who will stay in touch for years, and sometimes, a lifetime.
The friendships made in summer school are strengthened by the relatively short duration of a summer session. At SIS, students can arrive, enroll in three or four courses, participate in several activities, travel on multiple excursions, stay overnight in a mountain hut, rehearse and perform in a play or a musical, and board the bus to the airport for their homeward journey all in just three weeks. In a word, a summer session is intense. That intensity extends beyond mental and physical learning to a deep sense of belonging to something bigger, the sense of belonging to each other, the sense of having met a lifelong friend.
The same is true for staff. Some folks – probably those who haven’t worked in a summer school or summer camp – ask me how I do it, working in such an intense environment during the summer months, when the majority of the school staff has left for well-deserved vacations.  Again, it’s the friendships. For me, now that I’ve been around the block a few times, the emotion is perhaps finessed just a little bit – it’s not merely the friends I make, but it’s also seeing the rest of the staff members develop friendships. They can only accomplish as much as they do during the short summer sessions because of the trust that true friendships support. Watching such a diverse set of people grow into a trusting team so quickly gives me, at the risk of sounding cheesy, hope.
Sometimes, those friendships result in deeper relationships. I can think of more than a few couples who met during a summer program, including Marty and Catherine, the SIS staff members who were engaged while at SIS in 1992 and who returned to SIS last summer to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. For that matter, I think of my own wife, Chris: we met at a language immersion summer camp in the northwoods of Minnesota.
What else have I learned? Respect. Respect and how respect is what each and every one of us hopes for from others. At SIS, we survey students at the end of each session, asking whether they felt respected by the other students and by the staff members. The results are encouraging but they aren’t one hundred percent perfect. Students sometimes feel overlooked by their peers, perhaps because of cultural differences or perhaps because of things that we as adults know aren’t so important, like how cool you are, what clique you belong to, how you dress, or how you talk. Students also sometimes feel that we the adults haven’t been as respectful as we could be. When we are at our best, we learn from this. In turn, the students learn from us as we model respect, all of us together navigating the multicultural, whirlwind setting that is summer school.
What else? Leadership. This not just what I personally learn each summer from the huge amount of talent – and occasional challenges – a staff of eighty bring to the program, but also from watching staff and students manage their work and play. From recent LAS graduates returning to Leysin as newly minted SIS staff members to the multi-year veterans with advanced degrees, from timid students in their first days of the program to returning students in their fifth or sixth summer, everyone has a chance to lead. Observing how leaders appear and shape the program is fascinating. In a short frame of time leaders get their start and leadership is practiced in many different ways.
There’s more, of course. More lessons learned and more lessons to be learned. The most import lesson that summer programs have taught me, possibly, is the importance of having fun.  Fun is not trivial. Fun takes time. Fun can be a bit of work. But, fun makes all the difference in the world.
Making friends, learning respect, and practicing leadership are all made easier by fun. In the summer, we feel that we have permission to relax, to goof around, to experiment with new ideas, to push ourselves in areas outside our safe zone. If we consider that short list of permissions given to us by the expectation that summer programs should be fun – being relaxed, playful, inquisitive, and allowed to take risks – we discover what a rich environment for learning summer programs are. “We had so much fun,” students tell their parents at the end of each summer session. As staff, we would like to add, “And you learned so much because of it.”
Summer programs are short but their impact is long. In my case, summer programs have shaped my entire career. It’ll be twenty years of impact for me this summer, and who knows: maybe there are twenty more to come.
Paul has a PhD in curriculum & instruction and an MA in teaching English as a second language. During the academic school year he leads teacher professional development. During the summer, he leads the LAS summer school, Summer in Switzerland, or simply, SIS.