By Ben Sunding, Camp Program Manager

It was around January of 2019 and I was in the middle of my schooling at Appalachian State University. I recall my professor telling me that in order for me to get a degree in Parks and Recreation, I needed to have a summer internship. A wave of panic overwhelmed me. At the time, the idea of an internship to me meant doing coffee runs and handing mail to people who would barely consider me a human being. I struggled to understand how an internship could possibly apply to a career in the outdoor education industry. 

I approached my professor about all of this and he calmed my anxieties. He explained to me that most students in the program do an internship at a summer camp. There, they get to know how a camp is actually managed and what each role entails. He also told me that there was an Outdoor Jobs Fair coming up, in which camps from all over the South-East attend in search of robust applicants. I knew that I couldn’t miss it.

Soon, the big day arrived and I found myself in a sea of camp professionals, each one quirkier than the last. There were camps with giant, extravagant signs, camps giving out loads of free candy, camps that were shooting t-shirts out of canons. Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the idea. I must have spoken to a representative from every camp in western North Carolina. With a backpack overflowing with pamphlets and swag, I prepared to leave. However, just as I was about to walk out the door, one table that I hadn’t noticed before caught my eye. 

And there it was, Eagle’s Nest Camp. I remember that while every other camp had pulled out all of the stops to prove how great they were, Eagle’s Nest only said what needed to be said: Experiential education for young people promoting the natural world and the betterment of human character. The simplicity of this is what called me in to learn more. I spoke with Anna, the Camp Program Manager at the time, about the programs and what made this place so special. Every answer she gave only made me curious with more questions. I didn’t realize it then, but by the end of our conversation I had made up my mind. I was going to work at Eagle’s Nest Camp.

Training quickly approached. I had gone over the staff packing list again and again, researched the website trying to grasp more of what the program would be like, and spoke to various people about their experience of working at a summer camp. All that said, I knew in the back of my mind that nothing would truly prepare me for being in such a new environment. Even more so, I was scared that I would get to Eagle’s Nest and no one would like me. The last thing I wanted was to be in an unfamiliar place surrounded by people who didn’t care for me. 

My anxiety high, I drove into Pisgah Forest, the land around becoming more and more filled with  rhododendrons by the second. I soon arrived on campus, parked my car, and walked up the steps of the Salt Mines. I was intimidated and preparing myself for the worst. I approached the Salt Mines front porch, teeth clenched, bracing myself for what was to come, when finally, after all of the useless stress I put myself through, I heard a joyous, “You must be Ben!”

I was greeted like an old friend even though I knew no one. People of Eagle’s Nest new and old made me instantly feel welcome with smiling faces and infectious laughter. I went on to get to know my peers through Outdoor Clinic in which I was both challenged and supported in ways I hadn’t quite experienced before. By the end of Outdoor Clinic, I felt like I was part of a new family. I felt that I could be an unadulterated version of myself that I had found few outlets for previously. When more staff began arriving, many thought that I had been with Eagle’s Nest for quite some time. It wasn’t because I told them so, it was due to everyone’s compassion which helped me feel truly ingrained into the culture. 

In many ways I’m sure I experienced some of the anxieties our campers and participants experience upon arrival to a place that is very new to them. However, due to the love and warmth of my peers, that summer went on to be one of the best summers of my life. I learned more about myself as a person, as a leader, and as a friend. I formed interests that I had always thought were out of my league, but only because I had never participated in them before. For instance, I was initially uncomfortable with lunch time singing, worried that I would come across as tone-deaf. It was my now good friend Jess who told me that it’s not about singing the songs well, but it’s about having fun. I think that’s the thing that shouts out most to me about Eagle’s Nest: we learn and grow so much from our experiences, but we barely even notice it because the education is covered in layers of joy, openness, fun, and compassion. I went away to Eagle’s Nest anxious about completing all of my internship assignments, and came home happy to say that I probably had the best “internship” experience that anyone could ever have.