Conor O'Rourke spent three months on BUNAC's Summer Camp USA programme at Camp Vega in Maine while studying for his degree in sport development at Cardiff Metropolitan University
How did you choose your gap year?
Making the decision to head stateside for the summer was mainly down to family influence. Both my mum and uncle had worked at an American summer camp and they loved it - my uncle came back with stories of sun-filled days by the lake and trips to the 'Big Apple'. I couldn't turn down the opportunity to make my own trip across the pond.
Why did you decide on this programme?
I searched online for summer jobs in America and stumbled across the BUNAC website. I was so convinced, I signed up the same day. After enrolling, I viewed the available summer jobs and, being a level 2 qualified Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) coach, was delighted to see so many camps offering tennis coaching positions. I accepted an offer to work as a tennis counsellor at Camp Vega in Maine, with this decision turning out to be the best I've ever made.
How did you fund your gap year?
I worked a part-time job behind the bar at my local golf club, which was perfect for earning some pennies before heading stateside. I worked every available shift prior to my travel date, including late nights and early mornings, which was tough. However, with the trip of a lifetime in sight, mopping floors and changing kegs was a little easier.
Tell us about what the experience involved on a day-to-day basis.
As tennis was in high demand, we had to make sure plenty of sessions were available each day. The 11 courts were always busy through the summer, and for the staff this meant early starts. The 'Early Bird' sessions prior to breakfast were a big hit with campers. There would then be three sessions before lunch and a further two before dinner. There was also the option of playing tennis during a final session through one-on-one and small group activities. A typical day involved spending seven or eight hours on court.
As well as coaching responsibilities, I was also handed the role of a bunk-uncle, or 'bunkle'. This included planning surprise parties, lakefront activities, campfire s'mores and water fights. The motto that 'The most exciting thing a girl will find at Vega is herself' is at the heart of everything Camp Vega provides.
What were the highlights?
Being a part-time tennis coach back home, I'd plenty of experience, but was still looking forward to working with tennis coaches who brought their own philosophies. The staff had travelled from Mexico, Brazil, Chile, the Netherlands, America and Ireland, so I got to develop and learn from the inspirational people I worked with. These people are now some of my closest friends.
My time at Vega was only 59 days, but this was 59 days in the most beautiful place on earth. I got to swim in Echo Lake, get a tan while on the tennis courts and stargaze under the most spectacular night skies. All those memories wouldn't be the same without friends to share them with. We may be different in terms of our upbringing, beliefs and accents, but Camp Vega brought us together. On our days off, we went travelling and created new adventures.
One highlight was seeing a camper who'd attended every 'Early Bird' session rallying with her father on visiting day. At the start she couldn't hit three consecutive balls over the net. Five weeks later, she could successfully return 15-20 balls in each rally. Seeing her father so shocked and delighted with the progress she'd made in such a short period of time was amazing. It was great to provide a platform for these girls to develop, and if they were happy with the end result and had huge smiles on court, my job as a facilitator was done.
What were the biggest challenges?
It was leaving these wonderful people and this extraordinary world behind. You're together for nine weeks and share so many incredible memories that it seems unfair that it all has to end. I'm still in contact with them on social media and have a couple of pen pals too.
How will the skills you developed help your career?
Camps like Vega are keen to recruit staff from across the world to create cultural diversity. This programme has allowed me to get to know people from many different countries, and gain a better understanding of other cultures. I've acquired many work and life skills, but more importantly, I've gained confidence - I can approach any new challenge knowing that a positive outcome is always possible.
My communication, teamwork and organisation skills also improved. The environment removed the need to rely on social media. When I arrived, I actively looked for phone signal and Wi-Fi, but by the end of the first week I just wasn't bothered by the outside world.
What advice would you give to others considering a gap year?
If you get the chance to take time out and go somewhere completely new, take it. I was honestly very scared before I left, and wanted to turn down the opportunity because it wasn't the norm. But I rose to the challenge, threw myself in at the deep end and absolutely loved every second of it. There's no time like the present and it doesn't hang around, so just go for it.