Grace Pfeifer cheered on her campers as they slid their fingers into each mountain crag, inching their way up its side. No matter how challenging the route was, or whether they were climbing the upward or leeward side, Pfeifer always encouraged them to finish every climb.
This past summer, Pfeifer, a junior, worked as a resident assistant and rock climbing instructor for middle schoolers at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS), an international school. Pfeifer applied to the program because of a family friend and Catholic priest named Zachary Akers, who had connections to TASIS, which was searching for a camp counselor and rock climbing instructor at the time.
“I knew that Grace had a great personality for the position and was very well-qualified, especially given her background in outdoor sports, especially rock-climbing,” Akers said. “I wanted her to have this great experience of working in beautiful Switzerland. I have been told that ‘traveling is the best education,’ and I have found that to be the truth also.”
Since many are interested in this program, Akers told Pfeifer that obtaining this position wouldn’t be easy. TASIS chooses only around 20 to 30 counselors out of approximately 400 to 500 applicants.
“So I had the interview, it went well, and before I knew it, it was a reality,” Pfeifer said. “I was getting all my paperwork together for my work visa, and planning out what it’d be like to go overseas alone, without knowing anyone in a foreign country, and not knowing the language.”
The children at the camp attended fine arts classes every weekday from morning until 2 p.m. Once they were released, the instructors would pick up and drive the children that signed up for their respective “sports” tracks.
“The roads were so windy and everything is very tight in Europe. Space is conserved,” Pfeifer said. “It’s very mountainous. Just to get down to the city was a nightmare, going through these windy, steep roads.”
Pfeifer also had to adapt to the weather, which varied depending on location, and learned to copy others in wearing very thin layers.
“Italy has very wet, humid heat, and there are Palm trees, so it almost feels tropical. It was around 80 to 90 degrees,” Pfeifer said. “But then you look at the mountains and there’s snow up there.”
Pfeifer also dealt with a language barrier between her and her campers. The campers knew how to speak English, but they expressed themselves to each other in their mother tongue, said Pfeifer.
“Crucial to impacting the kids was connecting with them,” Pfeifer said. “Sometimes you had to really question them when you noticed something was up, because they weren’t ready to talk through it because of the language barrier.”
To work around the issue, Pfeifer visited the campers in their bedrooms at night when they were bored and calm and felt more comfortable speaking. She worked on building trust with them during the day, wanting the campers to know that she truly cared for them.
She got to know one particular camper, an 11-year-old Russian girl named Sasha. Sasha lived across from Pfeifer’s room in the hallway and every day would tell Pfeifer of some different injury she had. One day when Pfeifer walked into Sasha’s room, she found her panting heavily and exclaiming that she had a fruit allergy. Pfeifer initially thought Sasha might be joking, but she took Sasha outside for fresh air and brought her a glass of water.
“She seemed to calm down, but this kind of went on for a little bit where she would find me and have something going on,” Pfeifer said. “I kind of realized, she stopped doing this as much when I would check in on her. She was just really hungry for attention. All of these kids are from very privileged families — since it was a very expensive camp — and they all had nannies and chauffeurs. They don’t get a lot of contact with their parents and I just sensed loneliness.”
After providing Sasha the attention and care she lacked at home, Pfeifer noticed a big change with her. Before Sasha would only make it through a few rock-climbing routes, but by the end, she was always scaling routes until time was over.
Michaela Peine, a sophomore and Pfeifer’s current roommate, said the position was perfect for Pfeifer since she has a strong background in rock climbing and helping children.
“She especially loved getting to bring them hiking and bringing groups of them to church on Sunday,” Peine said about Pfeifer’s time in Switzerland. “She loves being outdoors, she has tons of experience helping out with kids, and she’s just a wonderful, loving person, so I knew that this would be an incredible experience for her.”
Pfeifer said it’s important to pursue an experience like hers with an open mind.
“If you have any interest, first know your limits,” Pfeifer said. “Don’t let your reservations hold you back, if you do feel you are capable. It’s a very transformative experience.”