Kicking Off the College Experience

Three years ago, Grand Rapids Community Foundation staff members developed an idea for a three-day camp session solely for students in the Challenge Scholars program. They hoped camp would unite students from both Harrison Park and Westwood Middle School in an outdoor setting. Here they could have fun, get to know one another and develop the all-important relationships that carry young students through the school year.

Fast forward to August 15th and I am watching 39 soon-to-be 7th graders as they eagerly arrive at YMCA’s Camp Manitou-Lin for their unique camp experience. They have some idea of what to expect – outdoor adventures, new friendships and maybe a little homesickness. But they quickly learn that Kick-Off Camp involves so much more.

“We strongly encourage Challenge Scholars students to attend Kick-Off Camp because it prepares them to adapt to new environments, a skill they’ll need in high school, college and their career,” said Ben Oliver, Challenge Scholars Advisor. “When students are nervous to try the high ropes course or timid about meeting new people, camp challenges them to break out of their shells and enjoy those new experiences.”

Campers spend the first day moving into their cabins and playing teambuilding games, such as Where the Sun Shines and Evolution of Rock Paper Scissors. The large, grassy lawn is filled with the sounds of laughter and conversation as students make new friends and learn how to work together. They practice the camp’s core values of honesty, respect, responsibility, caring and inclusion.

After lunch, they launch into the camp’s huge list of activities. For water-loving kids, the camp offers swimming, canoeing and kayaking. For adventurous campers, there is rock climbing, horseback riding and a spectacular high-ropes course. Sport-loving kids can play volleyball, soccer and spikeball. Of course, the beauty of camp is that the kids can try it all!

For many Challenge Scholars students, this is their first camp experience – maybe even their first time on their own, away from home. Challenge Scholars, the Community Foundation’s initiative to help first-generation students graduate from college, guides students every step of the way. Throughout the school year, teachers, school officials and parents provide the tools students need to succeed academically. But Kick-Off Camp is an important milestone because it readies students for their college experience.

The similarities between college and Kick-Off Camp are numerous. Students leave home, make new friends and develop their individual identities. They try new activities, adjust to new rules and freedoms and grow in a community of peers.

Tonight, at the end of day one, the students’ families will arrive for Family and Camper Night. Parents and siblings are always invited to enjoy Camp Manitou-Lin alongside their children for several hours. Together they can take a canoe ride on the beautiful Barlow Lake, navigate the high ropes course or share stories of the first day of camp.

On their third and final day at camp, students will participate in several workshops organized by Challenge Scholars staff. These include mindfulness yoga, cultural self-awareness, a panel of Union High School students and more. The workshops are designed to be informative and uplifting – preparing students to deal with challenges of stress, ethnic diversity and higher education.

Finally, camp will end with a bang as the students perform in a talent show!

I have no doubt that the Challenge Scholars students will have a fantastic experience over the next two days, and I hope they’ll grow from these new experiences of responsibility and independence.