As the hot, summer sun beats down on crowds of students convened at Lakeview United Methodist Conference Center in Palestine, Texas, complete strangers throw their arms around each other while swaying to the Aggie War Hymn. Lifelong bonds are forming between people who will one day be roommates, business partners, bridesmaids and groomsmen.
At Fish Camp, new Texas A&M students spend their summer basking in the Aggie spirit and learning about famous traditions such as The Big Event, Silver Taps, the 12th Man and Muster. This is where freshmen discover the most efficient way to purchase textbooks, learn how to prepare for their first home football game and find out where to seek academic help. By the end of this immersive experience, the shy faces that entered camp are ready to fearlessly tackle their first year. This is Fish Camp, and it’s a freshman’s first tradition.
Helping make it all possible are countless student counselors, who sacrifice their time and Aggie know-how to lead the camp and guide each freshman’s journey. But as the camp continues to grow and more counselors are needed, additional financial support is necessary to offset the cost of their participation. Due to lack of funds for private scholarships, a significant number of qualified and eager counselors could not afford to participate in camp this year.
“With more funds for scholarships that cover students’ counselor fees, we can lessen financial burdens and ensure that more Aggies get to fully experience the joy and benefit of leading Fish Camp,” said Matt Berckmoes ’18, the 2017 Fish Camp student director.
Counseling for Change
When students arrive at Fish Camp, they are separated into camps by color: red, blue, yellow, purple, green, aqua and lime, the newest addition. Camps are referred to by their namesake, individuals nominated by Texas A&M students, staff, faculty and friends. Each camp is led by two chairs and 24 camp counselors chosen for their leadership abilities and passion for Texas A&M. Within their camp, students are separated again into smaller discussion groups, or DG’s, with eight to 15 other freshmen. They are overseen by their DG leaders, two camp counselors who partner together and serve as a support system for each student.
It’s no doubt that freshmen are the focus of Fish Camp. However, the Fish Camp experience would not be possible without dedicated camp counselors who spend thousands of hours ensuring that new students are prepared for life at Texas A&M.
“The thing every counselor has in common is the desire to help transition the incoming freshmen class,” Matt explained. “Each freshman deserves to be welcomed into the Aggie family with open arms.”
Throughout the summer, counselors volunteer endlessly to create an amazing camp experience. They decorate their camp room at Lakeview, create skits illustrating Aggie traditions, and participate in teambuilding and training activities to bond as a camp family.
“Counselors plan discussion topics for their DG’s, work together to achieve goals by learning about each other’s differences and build conflict resolution skills,” said Donna Lee Sullins, Fish Camp adviser.
They also develop professional skills that are valuable even after graduation. “Fish Camp teaches accountability, collaboration, communication and teamwork,” Matt added. “It provides a safe space for counselors to practice their skills while creating unforgettable memories.”
The Experience of a lifetime
To participate as counselors, students must pay $207 in dues to support their leadership trainings, camp shirts, lodgings and meals at camp, and supplies for activities. A limited number of scholarships are available for those who can’t afford the price, but many more scholarships are needed to ensure that capable and qualified students have the chance to become leaders at Fish Camp.
Because Fish Camp’s operational funds only allowed for 96 counselor scholarships this year, the organization was forced to turn down 163 of 259 students who qualified for counselor scholarships.
“A student’s personal financial situation shouldn’t determine whether they can participate as counselors or not,” Matt said. “What hurt the most was hearing that someone couldn’t have this experience for a reason they couldn’t control.”
For Cheyenne Allgood ’17, who was inspired to become a Fish Camp counselor by her own camp counselor, a scholarship made all the difference.
“If it weren’t for the counselor scholarship, I wouldn’t have been a Fish Camp counselor, chairperson, or a director today,” she said. “Ultimately, I was inspired to become a Fish Camp leader because of how my DG supported me during a difficult experience my first semester of college. I had an ailing family member, and I was going through one of the roughest moments of my life. My DG rallied around me. Knowing that I could be someone’s family away from home like my DG was to me is what pushed me to be a counselor. Receiving this aid has taught me to pay it forward in ways that I don’t think I would’ve grasped had I not been a recipient.”
While Fish Camp has a membership endowment through the Texas A&M Foundation, its average annual earnings of $4,000 is not large enough to fund the number of counselor scholarships necessary each year. Contributions of any size can bolster the endowment, but endowed gifts of $25,000 or more—payable over a five-year period—will grow the endowment’s base value and grant more scholarships over the long-term. In total, Fish Camp seeks a $1.5 million endowment, which could support almost 300 counselors with financial need each year.
Fish Camp has made notable improvements since it was established in 1953. There are now seven traditional sessions as well as a “Fish Camp Reunion” during Session E. Lime Camp was added in 2014, which allows the organization to accommodate an additional 770 students each year. Finally, facility upgrades at Lakeview Methodist Conference Center continue to improve the camp.
The Fish Camp experience leaves a lasting impact on every counselor or student involved. Studies show that students who attend Fish Camp have a 7 percent higher first-to-second year retention rate than those who don’t. As a sponsored organization in the Department of Student Activities within the Division of Student Affairs, Fish Camp also provides new students with a safety network to turn to when they need help, thus encouraging more students to continue their education. It further teaches countless lessons of friendship and community, but most importantly, Fish Camp is the first part of what makes the Aggie family irreplaceable.
More than 1,100 student counselors participated in Fish Camp from July 29 to August 19 this year. To support the Fish Camp membership endowment and give more students the chance to be Fish Camp counselors, click the button below.