Officially blogging from my new office space! A big upgrade for me and a momentous step forward in my journey as a professional evaluator. It’s bitty and beautiful and all mine. And will hopefully soon have curtains!
Moving forward always makes me want to look backward as well, to see how far I’ve come and what I’ve learned along the way. (Must be the evaluator in me.) One of the things I’ve realized recently is how much farther back my journey goes than I thought, and how I was gravitating toward the path of program evaluation well before I even knew what it was or how to do it.
I did a lot of summer camps as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I found a camp I really loved. I was a shy, introverted, quiet kid who never got into the boisterous chumminess of most camps. Youth Leadership Camps Canada (YLCC) was different. It was vibrant too, full of energetic group activities, loud songs, and opportunities for goofy play. But for the first time I was given leeway in how much I wanted to engage, with staff who went out of their way to connect with me in quiet, friendly ways and supported me in sitting on the sidelines with a book if that’s what I needed. I was also exposed to a leadership development curriculum that’s had an enduring impact on how I engage with the world.
Over the five years I attended YLCC, I grew and changed in many ways. I edged my way out of my comfort zone, challenged myself to take risks, and built up my confidence in an environment where I felt safe and supported. Even if it was only 2 or 3 weeks out of the year at a time, it meant the world to me. I started high school as a shy weird nerd who got bullied a lot and was frustrated with everything. I ended high school as a slightly less shy, still weird nerd who felt like I had a place in the world and knew how to seek out other nerdy weirdos to befriend and let the rest of it go. I was a lot happier than I’d anticipated being and felt strongly that YLCC was a big part of that.
After five years, having taken all the programs that were available to me up to the end of high school and completed the Counsellor-in-Training program successfully, I took the plunge and joined the YLCC staff. For two years, I worked with the youngest kids who came to YLCC, the little ones in the day camp and the early grade kids doing overnights for the first time. It was a whole new level of responsibility and insights. Now I was the one making sure every kid got a chance to learn and take part in the way most comfortable to them and bringing out the leadership qualities in the next generation of campers. It was never easy, but it was worth it, and it made a profound impact on the person I've become.
After a little while, other aspects of life began to intercede and I left YLCC behind to pursue new adventures, but my staff blanket still comes with me wherever I go, and so do the memories, learning, and friendships.
So where does evaluation come into the picture?
Even before I joined staff, I remember wondering whether YLCC really did work. I felt like it did, but at the same time I had questions. Was there something special about this camp? Did it just work for me, or would it work for everyone? Did it only work for kids who were already set up for success, or would it help those facing huge challenges and barriers? For those who succeeded, was it really the camp or would they have found their support somewhere else if not there? Was there a benefit to it being a summer camp over something in-school? Did we really change, or did we just feel like we did? No matter how many resolutions I made during magical weeks of summer to be more confident, kinder, or more proactive thenceforth, there was always a certain amount of backsliding during the school year. Did this mean it was just an environmental effect that didn’t generalize? Or that it wore off in time? Was it the activities we did, or was it the staff who lead us through them that made the difference? What was it about YLCC staff that made them so great? Did the training they got make a difference in how effective they were, or was it more about what they innately brought to the role? Could YLCC be better? There was a lot of tinkering happening with the programming as the camp grew and expanded--were these changes really an improvement? How would we know?
Once I got on staff and became responsible for actually creating change in young people’s lives, I became even more curious. Many of the kids I worked with were nine and younger, and I wondered a lot about how one teaches leadership skills to a five-year-old and if it makes a difference. (Mostly I tried to provide them with a safe and supportive environment in which to have fun, make friends, and have positive experiences, and to make sure everyone got enough sunscreen on and stayed hydrated and didn’t eat too many crayons.)
I was also a psychology undergraduate by this point, and in my second year I tried to ask my Social Psychology professor what he knew about the research on leadership. He pointed me at various theoretical papers on transformative leadership, similar to what I’d been coming up with throwing keywords into PsycInfo, which were interesting but didn't really answer my questions. What I lacked was the language to explain that what I wanted to know was, “Can you reliably change kids’ lives by teaching them leadership skills at summer camp? And, if so, what’s the best way to do it?” I’m not even sure that literature would have been available at the time, though there’s a small and growing body of it now.
It would be another three years after I moved on from YLCC before I took my first course in program evaluation at the University of Saskatchewan and radically revised my career plans. And, oddly enough, it wasn’t until very recently that I made the connection between what I’m doing now and my burning desire to understand if that camp really works and how. If nothing else, I definitely believe it worked for me, and possibly has had a greater downstream effect than I previously imagined. I haven’t had the exact opportunity of evaluating a leadership summer camp yet, but looking at the opportunities I have had over the lastsix years since starting down this road, I can see serendipity at work, or perhaps my intuition guiding me toward projects that remind me of my early leadership experiences. One way or another, I’m still trying to answer these questions.
All told, it feels like I’ve wanted to be an evaluator for a very long time, even before I knew what program evaluation was. Given the invisibility of the field and the tendency for evaluators to approach the profession from all sides and through myriad meandering pathways as we each discover that our annoying habit of saying, “Wait, but how do we know if it’s really working?” actually comes with a job title, I have to imagine I’m not the only one.