Portland State Magazine Fall 2022

Before completing her capstone course at the camp in 2018, Atkinson had little experience interacting with those with disabilities. “At first I was very hesitant,” Atkinson said. “In the first couple of days, all of that went away.” ACROSS THE eight total weeks of camp, each student selects two weeks to serve as a counselor, working with different age groups each week. The capstone course begins in spring with a daylong orientation. Students then read a handbook and articles about those with disabilities, and complete online modules for skills such as communicating with those who use visual communication systems or transferring someone from a wheelchair to a canoe. Finally, students craft a pre-camp paper. At the start of their two-week session, counselors complete an additional weekend of training with staff and counselors before campers arrive.They learn about the campers they will be working with as well as the questions they will want to ask parents and caretakers. “Being a counselor is the hardest job in camp by far,”Wollman said. “My job [once the instruction phase has finished] is to be their support and their cheerleader. You need a lot of support and love up here, and that’s my mission.” Every night, once the campers go to bed, counselors and counselor supervisors meet to debrief about what went well that day, what didn’t go well, and what they will need to do the next day. Once the two weeks finish, students write a final reflection paper. The course is atypical compared with others on campus, Fullerton said. “We get to a quality course in a different way.” Students are evaluated based on their personal goals and not a defined set of performance expectations, which Fullerton said eases the pressure. “There is not a single person who isn’t challenged by this. By the end of the two weeks, they’re like, ‘I’ve got this. I can do this, and I’m extremely proud of myself for what I have done.’” WHILE THE average PSU capstone course has about 15 students, the Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp course can range from 130 to 160 students and regularly receives positive course evaluations. For many, the experience is epiphanous, according to a study Fullerton co-authored, called A Grateful Recollecting: A Qualitative Study of the Long-Term Impact of Service-Learning on Graduates, published by The Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement in 2015. The study, which features interviews with 20 graduates of the Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp capstone course who had completed the course within the previous two decades, explores “whether and in what ways graduates continued to experience impacts from the course.” Interviewees said they realized upon reflection that they had not previously considered people with disabilities to be akin to themselves. “This realization, painful as it was for many of the respondents, was also cited as deeply meaningful for their ongoing personal and professional growth post-college,” the study reads. Many also noted that they initially took the course because it seemed easy and fun. Instead, they found that the more difficult aspects of the experience—like learning to slow down their pace of activity and not be tempted to multitask—were the most enlightening. These lessons were pivotal as counselors attempted to connect with their camper and interpret the subtleties of their needs. “Profound engagement with their own fear and discomfort around difference, and the ways that engagement opened them up as human beings, allowed them to develop capacities they didn’t know they had,” the study reads. “The epiphany: being present and patient.” In total, 17 of the 20 interviewees described key ways in which their perspectives and skills had changed from the course. The most common takeaway was greater understanding and appreciation of human diversity, followed by nonjudgmental acceptance that human variation is typical, rather than atypical; enhanced communication skills; newfound maturity; and gratitude leading to a desire to serve. “Researchers found it striking that the graduates were able to look back years later and readily identify and fully describe specific moments during the course where they learned something of value to them and, more importantly, easily (FROM TOP) Megan Atkinson ’19, lifeguard and former counselor; Allan Cushing, operations director; Susie-Jo Miyanaga ’17, staffer and former counselor; Nathalie Wollmann ’10, PSU on-site instructor and former counselor.