The Best Summer of Your Life through Camp Counselors USA (CCUSA) Program
Interview with CCUSA Russia Country Director Valery Kostin
Text Marina Lukanina and Tatyana Shorova
Approximately twenty years ago the former USSR finally stopped being a “closed country.” Russians were given the luxury of traveling and seeing the world. Various exchange programs began to appear at that time. Some of them gave Soviet students and teachers the option to work in American summer camps. Since the camp movement in Russia has always been popular, such programs quickly became very popular among young people. We decided to talk more about one of such programs, Camp Counselors USA (CCUSA), with CCUSA Russia Country Director Valery Kostin.
Q. CCUSA How did you get involved in camp life in Russia and international camping?
It all started with Artek Camp that still remains one of the most famous camps in Russia. I first went there as a camper many years ago. After graduating from the Mordovian State University I became a counselor, then a program director and then a Head of one of the Artek camps.
Q. What made Artek so unique?
It was the largest international Young Pioneer camp in the Soviet Union established in 1925 on the Black Sea coast in the Crimea, Ukraine. Going to Artek was considered to be an honorable award. In the mid-sixties Artek started running international camp sessions regularly.
Q. What were the circumstances that brought you to the USA first?
At the time of my transfer to the Headquarters of the Young Pioneer Organization in Moscow, American Camp Association (ACA) was looking for a representative from the Soviet Union who could talk about camps in the USSR at their annual conference. I was chosen a speaker and I went to their Boston conference in February of 1990.
My presentation was very well-received. The delegates were astonished to hear that at that time there were over 100,000 camps in the Soviet Union. I spoke about our large camps, their programs, our staff trainings, and the importance of internships.
Bill Harwood, CCUSA President was among the people who listened to my speech. He suggested the idea of establishing a CCUSA program in the Soviet Union. He said he was eager to come to the Soviet Union and select the first Russian participants.
Q. And did he actually come?
He did. Two months after our first meeting in Boston. We gathered 40 students from different republics of the Soviet Union. There were 23 finalists. Our first group of CCUSA participants went to work at the American camps in the summer of 1990.
Q. Was there any reluctance from the American camp directors to hire staff from Russia at that time?
The year after we sent 75 people, then 113 and the number increased each year. The maximum number of people that we’ve sent so far is about 3,000 students. The numbers speak for themselves
Of course we also had to break through the stereotypes and prejudices of some American camp directors about the Russian participants. They could not believe the staff from Russia could be fluent in English and possess enough skills to teach American kids. I know one camp director who back in 1990 did not even think about having anyone from the Soviet Union. She was convinced however to hire one counselor from Lithuania, then part of the Soviet Union. This Lithuanian student transformed the entire arts & crafts program at that camp. Since then that camp director had been hiring lots of counselors from Russia.
Q. What is the main purpose of this program?
Various organizations have different opinions on that. Some consider it to be just a way of making money. As a person who is involved with this program for over 20 years I strongly believe that its main emphasis is on the cultural exchange.
Q. What are the selection criteria and requirements for the candidates?
All the participants have to go through an interview with the program representatives in Moscow or in the regional representative offices of CCUSA. Not only do we pay attention to the skills of the participants but also take into account their personal disposition.
Though Camp Counselors USA program you can go either as a camp support staff (kitchen staff, for example) or as a camp counselor. Some students hesitate to go as a counselor so they begin with a support staff position and usually return as counselors for their 2nd year.
CCUSA takes care of its participants – each of them has a 24-hr emergency phone; the program representatives visit the camps where the CCUSA participants are placed.
In 1997 we also opened Work Experience Program (WEUSA) in Russia. This program allows the students to work in the US service sector – restaurants, theme parks, hotels, etc.
Generally, we accept full-time students and young teachers under 25 years old for participation in Camp Counselor program, and full-time students only - in our Work Experience Program.
Q. Can a foreign student residing in Russia participate in this program?
Yes, as long as he/she has a legal status in Russia. Students from Ghana, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and the CIS have already taken part in this program.
Q. How much are the program fees and what do they include? Do the participants get paid at a camp?
The fee for CCUSA program is about $800-$1000. It includes insurance, visa, a plane ticket, and administrative expenses. The plane ticket is partially subsidized by the program. At the camp the participants get what we call “pocket money” - approximately $1000 - and I would like to emphasize again that the purpose of this 9 week cultural exchange program is not earning money.
For WEUSA, the fee is about $1500-$2000. This program cost is paid by the participants; there is no subsidy for the plane ticket. On the other hand, in the US you receive a real salary: the minimal hourly rate is $5.25 and up, depending on the type of job and skills. The program duration is 3–4 months including one month of “grace period” that you can use for traveling.
Q. What kind of camp do the participants work at?
There are traditional program camps (Independent/Private camps and Agency camps) that are based on traditional camp values. Campers stay from one to eight week sessions. There are Day Camps that usually operate Monday to Friday during the day. There are Girls Scouts Camps, camps for underprivileged and inner-city children, camps for people with physical/mental disabilities, specialty program camps that focus on one or more of the main activity areas, such as Sports, Arts, and there are Religious camps, which emphasize a fun outdoor experience while promoting the values of different faiths.
Q. Can the participants choose the camps they want to work at?
Every year in March we hold a camp director fair for CCUSA participants, there are about 30 representatives of different camps. It gives a chance for the students, who are already accepted to the program, to choose a camp according to his or her individual preferences. On a regular basis, a student has an interview with CCUSA representatives; successful applications are sent to the US office and then are chosen by the camp directors.
Q. How did the idea of establishing Camp Russia (CRUSSIA) program appear?
After the first successful year the Americans decided to send their students to our camps, in 1991 about 20 American students came to Russia. It was a wonderful experience for them in camps all over Russia.
Q. Does this program work only for the Americans?
Initially, it was only the Americans who participated in CRUSSIA, but in 2000 Britain joined the program. Since 2001 there are about 30-50 students coming over to the Russian camps every year.
The countries which have already sent us their students are the following: Canada, USA, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto-Rico, Ireland, Netherlands, France, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Practically every country mentioned has a Camp Counselors representative office. Our web site, www.ccusa.com, provides a complete list of our office locations. If there is none in your country, you can contact the office closest to your place. We cooperate with over 65 countries.
The students work at camps for one – two months and get pocket money ($100-$300). The most important part is cultural communication exchange. In some universities it is even considered to be summer training. The camps we cooperate with in this program are members of the Russian Camps Association.
Q. What are the requirements for CRUSSIA program participants? Is knowledge of Russian mandatory?
Overall, knowledge of the Russian language is not required. Those who speak only English can either teach the language or do sports activities at camps. We do emphasize that if a person does not speak Russian, then he/she should at least speak English.
There is no age limit: one can be 18 and over to a reasonable limits. It might be interesting to know that our oldest participant was 72 years old, a retired nurse.
Q. Where can we get more information about these programs?
You should refer to our two web-sites: www.ccusa.com (our headquarters web-site) and www.ccusa.ru is our Russian website. And as CCUSA slogan says, I wish everyone who is interested in international exchange experience at least one Best Summer of Your Life through Camp Counselors USA.