In just the third week of the Phillips Brooks House Association’s Summer Urban Program, Rachel E. Zhou ’24, a counselor at the Chinatown Adventure camp, reached their breaking point.
Zhou had spent the morning organizing a field trip to the Fogg Art Museum, rounding up campers, and occasionally chastising them when they didn’t follow directions. After an unbearably hot commute back to their school in Chinatown, Zhou sat down and started to feel dizzy. As the boys went downstairs to the bathroom, the girls waited with Zhou, who started to feel nauseated and began hyperventilating before breaking into tears.
Zhou tried to pull it together, not wanting the campers to see them in such a vulnerable state, and even asked someone else to step in as they tried to cool down. But without air-conditioning, Zhou felt like they couldn’t breathe. They ended up leaving camp early that day.
“I’m supposed to be responsible for their well-being. And I can’t because I was so overwhelmed,” Zhou says. “I was so exhausted that I just completely lost it.”
“I could handle getting bullied by middle schoolers all day, but as soon as I started to physically feel ill, I felt like the entire camp was destroying my body piece by piece.”
Though Zhou’s panic attack was in part due to the effects of heat exhaustion during a record-hot Boston summer, they also attribute it to what they see as unrealistic expectations for counselors at SUP.
SUP began in the 1960s as an effort to address educational inequality in low-income communities and has expanded over the decades to serve many Cambridge and Boston neighborhoods. This summer, it served more than 800 campers between the ages of 6 and 13 across its 12 camps, hosted in community centers and Boston Public School buildings. The camps offered six weeks of academic enrichment and extracurricular programming for just $140 per camper.
Though PBHA’s full-time staff supervise SUP, its day-to-day is run by 130 students from Harvard and other colleges. Some work as “directors,” an administrative role that involves overseeing camp operations, training and supervising counselors, and managing finances. Others work as “senior counselors,” leading a class of approximately 10 students in a part-camp counselor, part-teacher role. Ninety local high schoolers serve under them as “junior counselors.”
In interviews with 20 SUP affiliates, some counselors and directors said that their work, though challenging, left them feeling that they made a real impact on campers and forged genuine connections with the local community. “The community of students that I was working with was truly amazing,” says Mallory E. Rogers ’25, a director at SUP this summer. “It was truly an invaluable experience. I appreciate it in so many ways.”
But others, like Zhou, said the expectations of running the program are unreasonable for college students without teaching experience, and that the stressors of the job, exacerbated by inadequate training and poor communication from PBHA, left them exhausted and disillusioned. “We’re not adults — we’re not teachers,” says Zhou. “[I] couldn’t take a moment to make sure I was taking care of my physical health.”
Some counselors, as well as PBHA leadership, attribute any dysfunction to the scramble to commence in-person programming after two virtual summers.
Maria Dominguez Gray, PBHA’s executive director, wrote in an email that she “and the whole leadership team recognize that this was a challenging summer,” and PBHA is “open to looking at what could be done better.” However, she maintains that SUP was “overall successful” this summer, commending “the extraordinary dedication and thoughtfulness of the staff and students that stewarded the camps this year.”
In recruitment materials, PBHA describes a summer spent staffing SUP as “the hardest summer you’ll ever love.” But some counselors felt unprepared for just how hard it would be, and left the program disillusioned with public service at PBHA, wondering if doing social good must necessarily come at the cost of their own well-being.
Sumaiyea A. Uddin, a student at Wellesley College, has always wanted to be a teacher. At the start of the summer, she was eager to foster that passion by teaching refugee campers as a counselor for SUP’s Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment program.
“In the beginning, I loved PBHA. I loved the mission,” she says.
Seema Kumari ’25, another counselor at BRYE, was also looking forward to spending her summer working with kids and supervising field trips.
“When I started I was very happy,” Kumari recalls.
But neither of them anticipated the demanding work and long hours that awaited them.“[The] reality was horrible,” Uddin says. Midway through the summer, “I was contemplating quitting. And I know a few of my co-workers were as well.”
“I knew that I would have to wake up early and stuff like that, but I didn’t know that there would be days when I would have to work for 11 hours,” Kumari says.
Kumari’s days began just after the sun rose. Each morning at 6:30 a.m., she walked from her DeWolfe dorm to The Inn and boarded a Harvard-run shuttle headed for the Richard J. Murphy School in Dorchester, using the 25-minute ride to finalize the day’s curriculum. Once in Dorchester, she spent the next two hours escorting 90 BRYE campers onto the shuttle along 20 stops, coordinating pick-up times with parents over text. Around 8:30 a.m., Kumari and the campers arrived at the school, and the official workday began.
Kumari and her junior counselor spent the morning teaching and the afternoon playing games and organized activities. Once camp ended at 3:30 p.m., counselors and campers would board the shuttles, with Kumari again coordinating with parents so all campers made it safely back home.
Kumari didn’t arrive back on campus until around 6 p.m. From there, the rest of her night would be spent meeting with program directors, preparing the next day’s lesson, and cooking meals from groceries bought using her $5,000 summer stipend.
Though timing varied depending on the week, Kumari says she usually worked about 11 hours per day. Her longest workday lasted 13 hours when a shuttle broke down.
According to Kumari’s estimates, including time spent preparing over the weekend, BRYE counselors worked around 60 hours per week, amounting to 360 hours spent during the 6 weeks of camp. All SUP counselors also logged about 70 hours over two weeks of training before camps started. Senior counselors earned a $5,000 stipend for the summer, with $200 deducted from their paycheck for on-campus housing — though as an international student, Kumari says she had $700 deducted from hers. Using Kumari’s approximations, the pay for BRYE senior counselors averaged out to less than the state minimum wage, though the regulation does not apply to this type of stipend.
Though counselors at other SUP camps worked fewer hours a day because they were not responsible for camper pick-up or drop-off, many still felt their work was under-compensated given its challenging nature.
“It’s hard because this is service work, but it’s also extremely emotionally taxing to do this work,” Zhou says, noting that their doctor prescribed them anti-anxiety medication over the summer to cope with job-related stress.
Some counselors also found it hard to make ends meet. “I know that people have had problems with affording groceries,” says Khanh Le ’25, a student director of BRYE. Students were mostly left on their own for meals, apart from two Harvard University Dining Services meal swipes per week.
Dominguez Gray emphasizes that the money given to student staff is not an hourly wage, but a stipend meant to meet basic living expenses for the summer.
“We also take the extra step, because a stipend is also not an excuse for not paying people the minimum wage or a living wage,” she says, adding that PBHA adjusts the stipend according to how many hours students work until it “feels ethically okay.” According to Gray, students are saving on their housing by paying below an estimated worth of $2,000 for summer housing, and during training, breakfast and lunch are provided. “It's certainly above living wage,” she says. She adds that PBHA only expects counselors to work around 40 hours per week, and that time spent commuting and working on curricula is not factored into the stipend.
Despite the 40-hour expectation, some counselors felt compelled to stay overtime to ensure campers weren’t left unattended.
Tenzin T. Lhadon, a junior counselor for SUP’s Cambridge Youth Enrichment Program, says that though she was allowed to leave school at 3 p.m. each day, she usually stayed late. “I didn’t want to leave any of my kids unattended just because some of their parents didn't get to pick them up until 4, and I just felt like it was my responsibility to stay with them.”
Some counselors and directors also said that the training they received did not equip them to handle interpersonal challenges they faced on the job.
Mary M. McConville ’24 recalls that during her time as a director of CYEP this summer, she had to deal with much more interpersonal conflict and behavioral issues than she felt prepared for. One of the six-year-old campers would often run out of the classroom unannounced, “just sprinting down the hallways,” she recalls. As a director, McConville was responsible for talking with the child, but the issue persisted, leaving her feeling like she didn’t have the tools to handle it.
The two-week long training for senior counselors is developed “with a set of competencies that are reviewed every year,” Dominguez Gray says.
She adds that the training for director positions is more extensive and starts during the spring semester. According to her, the training — which includes weekly meetings during the school year, individual sessions with PBHA staff, and a week-long intensive at the start of the summer — goes above the American Camping Association’s standards for counselor training. During the summer, she adds, former SUP counselors return to help coach student directors.
“They’re really learning and being trained on and coaching and developing skills. It’s pretty much the equivalent of getting to run a small nonprofit,” Dominguez Gray says.
Despite the training, some counselors felt that a lack of professional personnel and resources meant some issues were outside of their control. In BRYE, this led to health risks for campers.
On the third day of BRYE, a senior counselor who requested to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from PBHA, heard a camper complaining of stomach pain. Because no certified school nurses work within SUP, the counselor escorted the camper to the director’s office, where the child called her parents. She later returned to class after it was determined they were not coming to pick her up.
At drop-off, they heard a noise at the back of the van. The camper had vomited into her hands.
The camper was Muslim, and since there were no halal food options at breakfast or lunch, she hadn’t eaten anything since the day began. Her stomach empty, her vomit “was basically just bile,” the counselor says.
At the end of the week, the incident was brought up at a staff meeting, according to multiple attendees. But PBHA administrators didn’t take the complaints as seriously as some counselors hoped, instead suggesting that parents could provide lunch themselves in case PBHA couldn’t find money in the budget for halal food.
Counselors were concerned that their worries for their campers’ well-being were being dismissed. “If they’re low-income, they might be struggling with food,” Uddin says, arguing it was unreasonable to expect parents to provide lunch when the program advertises otherwise.
The meeting quickly devolved into an argument between counselors, directors, and administration, according to Uddin. Some left the PBHA building in tears. “It was pretty traumatic,” the counselor says.
SUP meals are provided for free by the Boston Public School system. Though BPS does not typically offer halal food over the summer, according to Dominguez Gray, it does provide vegetarian lunches which often happen to be halal — but none were provided until PBHA reached out when complaints were raised at the staff meeting. The issue wasn’t formally corrected by BPS until about two weeks later, according to Kerry J. McGowan, who works full-time for PBHA as the director of programs.
BPS wrote in a statement that it is “committed to ensuring all students are welcomed and affirmed, and all aspects of our instruction and operations are culturally sustaining.”
The district encourages students and families seeking Halal meals or other religious accommodations to contact the district’s Office of Equity, which then takes all possible steps to meet those requests,” the statement said.
BRYE doesn’t typically serve Muslim campers, but this year it partnered with the Refugee Immigrant Assistance Center, a Massachusetts-based refugee resettlement organization. A week before camp started, 15 Afghan students joined the program, but PBHA leadership failed to anticipate the need for halal food before camp started.
Some counselors saw PBHA’s attempts to retroactively fix the issue as half-hearted. At first, PBHA staff delivered Lunchables from the local Stop & Shop, according to the BRYE counselor. After a few days, snack packets of cheese, almonds, and dried cranberries were shipped in. Each Muslim camper was given two for lunch.
Dominguez Gray says she reached out to staff from BPS and city officials about the issue, adding that PBHA wants to “be partners in helping address [it] for all of our children.”
D’Ara S. Campbell, a junior at Howard University who worked as a counselor at SUP’s Franklin Intergenerational Outreach Summer Program, wrote in a text message that the work of managing a classroom of kids was made even more difficult with “centipedes, spiders, ants, and flies” crawling “all throughout” the James P. Timilty Middle School. Campbell and other counselors felt that some of the camp facilities — most camps are run in schools within the BPS system — couldn’t support the campers.
Many schools, including Campbell’s, lacked air-conditioning, and on days over 95 degrees, the Boston Public School system would close all schools, sometimes without warning, Campbell says.
Counselors would need to think on their feet, taking the kids to a library or organizing outdoor water-based activities, for which they needed to coordinate with parents. “It was a summer where we really had to lean on each other,” Campbell says. “There were moments where it seemed like we couldn’t stay there another day.”
“It was very surprising seeing the condition our camp was in,” she adds. “It was kind of like, ‘There’s got to be another option.’ And the fact there wasn’t made it very disheartening, knowing that SUP has so many connections — you know, it’s Harvard-affiliated — but it still felt like we were not getting the best of what we should have.”
According to Dominguez Gray, the facilities’ conditions are reflective of the economic reality faced by the communities they serve year-round. “It is not feasible to run SUP out of Harvard buildings for several reasons and I believe the idea is problematic from a values perspective,” she wrote in an email, adding that working in local buildings helps integrate SUP staff into the community and is more convenient for the campers.
“While there are some challenges in some of the facilities that may be surprising to some Harvard students who have different lived experiences, trying to figure out how we can help advocate with partners to make the situation better for all children and families is more in line with our approach and what we are planning to do to address these challenges for next year,” she wrote.
BPS is executing a district-wide push to install air conditioning in its non-HVAC buildings, which it expects to be completed in Spring 2023, according to a statement from the school system. The district also has a pest control program and intervention team to respond to reports of pests, the BPS statement said, adding that “the concern at the Timilty School was reported and promptly addressed.”
In May, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 rolled out a $2 billion city investment in BPS facilities, which she dubbed a “Green New Deal” for the district.
“We are not yet where we want and need to be, but we will continue to strive to make progress daily,” the statement said. “Mayor Michelle Wu’s investment in a Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools will make this a reality, addressing our infrastructure challenges and building a future for the district that meets the needs of all our students.”
Despite the conditions of the school, Campbell says “the attitudes of the kids helped keep me going every single day.”
Still, her fondness for her campers didn’t detract from her grievances with the program. Not only did she feel frustrated with the lack of resources and direction, but she felt that these issues were being ignored by program leadership. “Sometimes it does feel like we’re the little worker ants, and there’s a lot going on, and sometimes it feels like we can’t fix it or that we’re not being heard about it,” she says.
“I had to control how I felt about it, and quell how I felt about it, and make sure that I’m still giving these kids what they deserve,” she adds, “giving them a great summer, even with what we had.”
Some counselors, as well as PBHA leadership, attribute many of the issues this summer to the difficulties of revitalizing SUP after two virtual years.
This summer was the first time since 2019 that SUP functioned fully in-person, and few returning counselors had ever worked at non-virtual SUP. The summer felt a bit like “reinventing the wheel,” McGowan says.
Before the pandemic, Dominguez Gray says incoming counselors were more aware of the challenges their job would entail.
“It's the hardest summer you’ll ever love, right? That’s something that alumni have said for a really long time,” Gray says. “Most incoming counselors know how hard the experience will be because they know it from their peers. Peers recruit peers.”
But because of the pandemic, almost none of the counselors had a full picture of what working at SUP would be like.
In anticipation of that institutional memory loss, PBHA hired a team of SUP alumni support staff to help run the camps.
However, even with these measures in place, some counselors still felt unprepared for another pandemic-induced challenge: a higher prevalence of behavioral issues in campers.
Those who had experience with SUP before it went remote say that this summer, they noticed more behavioral issues with the campers, most of whom had spent several of their formative years in an unstructured classroom setting via Zoom.
When McConville recounts her experience handling the six-year-old who would run out of the classroom, she attributes part of the issue to the child having spent two years learning online. “They were probably illustrating behavior more like a 4- or 5-year-old,” McConville says.
“We were learning on the fly,” McGowan says. “As much as we know about running these programs, we’ve never done it before with kids, as well as adults, who have experienced the impact of a global pandemic for two years.”
“I don’t think it’s something anyone could have prepared for,” says Alan R. Dai ’22, a student director who returned to SUP’s Chinatown Adventure camp for his third summer. “[Covid] affects not only the campers, but it also affects those teachers or counselors,” he says. “Our own ability to respond to new challenges is impeded in some ways because we’re also learning the ropes.”
Though Dominguez Gray acknowledges the challenges of returning to in-person summer programming during an ongoing pandemic, she says “it also doesn’t mean that we turn our backs on our communities and the children and the families that rely on us, that have always relied on us for generations.”
Before camp started, SUP counselors received two weeks of training, covering topics like diversity and conflict resolution through restorative justice, communication with families, and curriculum planning.
Rogers, a SUP director, says the training gave her tools to handle most situations. “There were definitely conversations that would come up and I was like, ‘I don’t know how to handle this,’” she says. “But overall, I think [I] had pretty good training.”
Dominguez Gray says that the training attempts to strike a balance between being comprehensive and concise. She adds that training involves substantial time with teachers who help counselors understand how to work with each age group.
However, some counselors felt that the training was misaligned with the scope of the problems before them, making managing the campers more difficult on the job.
A lot of the training felt unproductive, says Zhou, adding that some of the time dedicated to sensitivity training would have been better spent teaching counselors how to handle a classroom. “The type of people who are drawn to this work are the type of people who are already going to be in social justice circles, who already care about community building, who obviously don’t know everything but already probably are somewhat familiar with race and racism.”
Trainings were not tailored to camp-specific issues, they say, noting that even when the trainings did discuss race, they failed to address AAPI-sensitive issues even though the Chinatown Adventure camp served almost exclusively Asian American campers.
“The training was very much just lofty and very much felt like the organization was trying to just cover their own liability or try and spout these very lofty principles,” says Zhou.
“We didn’t really learn about classroom management,” says Uddin. “It was a stupid restorative justice workshop that we learned nothing from at all.”
BRYE requires counselors to teach English as a Second Language, though the camp-specific training related to ESL was only four hours long. Counselors found themselves having to navigate conflict resolution with campers who didn’t speak the same language. Le, a BRYE director, recalls one instance when two campers who spoke different languages got in a physical fight over a simple miscommunication.
Hieu “Annie” Vu, a junior counselor at BRYE, says that much of the burden of translation fell upon her and a few other junior counselors from the area who spoke Vietnamese.
“I would say, honestly, you could never get enough training,” McGowan says, though he adds that some counselors already feel burnt out at the end of the training as is.
Vu attended BRYE as a camper for about five years, and says that she and her peers “went home with amazing memories.”
This summer, Vu became a junior counselor to give back to the program. “I want to give my campers good memories as well,” she says. “That’s what BRYE has given me.”
Though she admits there were challenges with communication and workload, on the whole, she’s satisfied with the work that BRYE has done to help campers gain confidence in their English. “I feel like BRYE still holds up the expectation of helping them connect to the place they call home,” she says.
For Rogers, seeing the impact of her work made her experience “one of the best summers that I’ve had.”
“I think sometimes you see Harvard students that come and do [SUP] for a year and don’t appreciate it, but you can see the community that it builds,” she adds.
Indeed, SUP’s success is often measured through its impact on its campers, many of whom would not have a chance to participate in a summer camp otherwise. According to a PBHA-conducted survey of 431 parents (72 percent of enrolled families), 98 percent said their child enjoyed their camp experience this summer.
However, the significance of the camp for the communities it serves underscores the importance of addressing student staff concerns before next summer, Campbell says.
“There’s a lot of kids who are coming from these areas, and who don’t have a choice,” she says. “Because they don't have a choice, we should make SUP better for them, and I really hope that can be done.”
Several student counselors and directors said they would likely not return to SUP in the future, discouraged from what they saw as the systematic undervaluing of student staff in the name of public service.
Some students even started to question whether SUP’s structure is sustainable.
“We’re not trying to make martyrs out of people,” says Dominguez Gray, highlighting the hiring of the SUP alumni support staff. “We’re not trying to run people into the ground. We’re not trying to burn people out. And so we really do pay attention to collective care and supporting one another.”
Asked if she believed students were prepared to run a program as intense as SUP, Dominguez Gray points to an exchange she had with a counselor who told her, “You told us it would be real service and it’d be hard, but we didn’t know what that meant, and we wouldn’t know what that meant until we experienced it.”
Le confirms this sentiment. “A lot of times we felt unprepared, but that’s also because of the nature of the job.”
“I think that’s the reality of PBHA service across the board,” Dominguez Gray says. “I mean, not that we’re trying to go hard and make things super difficult.” But, she argues that the difficulty of the work is part of the appeal; she says students and alumni have told her that working with PBHA has been “one of the most transformational experiences” they’ve had because “you’re involved in real-life things. This isn’t a cultivated spoon-fed experience.”
Zhou suggests that some of the challenges of the program stem from conflicting components of SUP’s mission.
“Is this a program for underprivileged youth, or is this program for college students?” Zhou asks. Right now, Zhou says, “it’s in this weird in-between space where the kids are screwed because college students don’t know what they’re doing, and the college students are screwed because the kids are kids.”
Clarifying the mission, according to Zhou, could help to reform the program for future years.
PBHA gives a survey to student staff at the end of each summer, and Dominguez Gray says that the results will help PBHA build on the program’s strengths and correct weaknesses in future years.
McGowan, the PBHA director of programs, says that SUP is still in the beginning stages of recovering from the pandemic, a process he likens to crossing a rocky stream. “We’re on step one here, we still have four or five more to go across to get to where we will be, and where we will be is not necessarily where we were in 2019 or before,” he says.
Though the SUP counselors and directors across the 12 camps had different experiences, all recognize the importance of preserving the mission of the program.
“I hit my breaking point really early on —like I was the first of the seven counselors to cry,” says Zhou. “But the one thing that kept me going was I didn’t want to give up [on] the kids.”
“In the moment it sucks, like it sucks a lot,” says Le. “I dropped two clothing sizes.” But after the program, he says, it’s all worth it.
The reason that Dai kept returning to SUP every year is that it was “something directly impactful and unambiguously meaningful for me to be doing with my time at Harvard,” he says. He also wanted to lend his three summers’ worth of past experience to help the student staff revitalize the program.
Though some of the student counselors and directors were discouraged after the turbulent summer, others say that they want to come back and help improve it, for both the staff and the campers.
After directing camp over Zoom, Dai felt especially fulfilled to return to the joys of in-person camp: seeing a crowded cafeteria and watching campers whip out a deck of cards, or grow a passion for chess.
He spoke fondly of Chinatown Adventure’s annual “CHAD Olympics.” “I just remember the joy the kids had with this one event, what’s called ‘Soak the Directors,’” he says, recalling the mischievous glee that five-year-olds and 13-year-olds alike took from chucking wet sponges at the staff.
Though he adds, “I still have bruises from it.”