Finding my Inner Kid: UCLA Unicamp

Hi future Bruins! Before I get started, I just want to give a BIG congratulations to you all. I cannot wait till I see you around campus and can congratulate you all in person.

My name is Amy Vandyken and I’m a 2nd year Political Science major/Disability Studies minor here at UCLA. I am studying to one day go to law school, become a teacher, and make a documentary film (I know it’s all over the place)! I’m from Orange County, California, but for the past 2 years, UCLA has been my true home.

When I first moved into my dorm room, I was a nervous 17 year old girl. College was a big, scary place that, as a first generation college student, I had no real knowledge about. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders – to make friends, to succeed in academia, and most importantly, to be a “grown up.” However, an organization at UCLA, Unicamp, changed that for
me, and allowed me to realize that UCLA was an institution where I could find success, passion, and have fun – all at the same time.

Unicamp is the official philanthropy of the Students of UCLA. Since 1934, Unicamp has helped thousands of children from underserved Los Angeles communities to experience a week-long, overnight stay, summer camp experience at Camp River Glen. These campers typically do not get to experience the magic of the outdoors, and that’s why Unicamp’s motto is “Sing Songs. Play Games. Change Lives.”

At the beginning of winter quarter of my freshman year, I began seeing posters all over campus and posts all over social media urging me to join Unicamp as a counselor. There were so many passionate students from all different majors, years, and backgrounds advertising the organization. What truly caught my eye though, was how all these students were using
nicknames. “Lilo,” “Lotus,” and “Bear” were just some of them. Once I decided to take them up their offer and go to my first Unicamp meeting, I realized why. That meeting was led by 4 students at UCLA, who were called Unicamp LSHIP (Leadership). They shared a story about a Unicamp camper who during her cabin’s icebreaker activity, introduced herself as “Smart.” Soon, the nickname caught on, and by the end of the week, everyone, from staff, to counselors, to fellow campers, were calling her “Smart.” At the end of the week, her counselor asked her why she had chosen that name. “Smart” answered “Because no one ever calls me smart at home.” From then on, every counselor and camper got to choose what their Camp Name would be. Unicamp was a place where everyone could reach new potentials, and it started with what they wanted to be called. After hearing this story, I chose “Spongey” to be my Camp Name (I love Spongebob)! Having a fun camp name was just one of the ways Unicamp allowed me to be a kid again.

For the rest of that school year, I went to weekly Unicamp meetings, where LSHIP and the returning counselors (called “Old Woodseys”) prepared me to become a counselor. I learned about appropriate language use and social-emotional learning. However, these training topics weren’t presented in a boring powerpoint. There were break out groups, situationals, and song-singing. Most importantly, there was plenty of time to get to know the other counselors as well. I formed incredible bonds with many of them (shoutout Nova, Star, and Sunshine!), and was so excited to see how we would do during our week of camp.

Another amazing thing about Unicamp is that the counselor position is a volunteer position. That’s why everyone in Unicamp does it out of genuine desire to give back to their community. In fact, every Unicamp counselor has to raise $450 by their week of camp in order to subsidize the cost for the campers to come to camp. A lot of counselors go above and beyond, raising more than $1000 each!

Once summer rolled around, it was time for my week at camp! I won’t go too much into detail about what happened at camp (because I hope you get to experience your own camp session), but I will say this – it truly was a week of lessons learned and personal growth. By the end of it, I knew I wanted to come back. That’s why 3 weeks after my week of camp ended, I returned as a “Floater” counselor, joining a different Unicamp session. My second time around was even better than the first. My campers were elementary aged girls, and we had hair braiding sessions and countless dance parties. My co counselor for that session, Bronco, was great, and we eventually started dating!

Doing Unicamp was the highlight of my 2019 summer. I left with a wide range of emotions, with the strongest being the desire to continue giving back to the children in these underserved communities. That’s why during my second year, I committed to returning to Unicamp as an Older Camper Program (OCP) counselor. Additionally, I joined other children-centered organizations like UCLA Cub Tours and Jumpstart. My future goals went from going straight to law school to taking a couple of gap years after undergraduate to do the Peace Corps. And thus, I realized that even though I thought I was serving the campers at Unicamp, they were actually
serving me.

I wanted to share this story because UCLA has so many opportunities for students to find their passion, whether it be through clubs, internships, or events. So just like I found myself through my involvement with Unicamp, I hope you also strive to try new things and unlock your full potential as a Bruin!