Spreading the ‘Michigania Magic’ to All

Camp Michigania’s director reflects on tradition and looks ahead to the future of camp.
By James McRae, x’97


Read time: 3 minutes
James McRae with his goddaughter, Carrine Barnett, at camp.
James McRae with his goddaughter, Carrine Barnett, at camp. Photo courtesy of James McRae.

I remember standing in the back of the Faculty Forum room at Camp Michigania in the summer of 2002. I looked around and not only was I the only non-white face in the group, but it felt like I was the only one who was not quite sure what was going on. Counselors said they wanted to teach us some songs, but it seemed everyone except me already knew them. One song was a morbid tale of a shark biting a woman’s leg off; another was a tale of a princess who was a sailor and had some bamboo or something… I was confused.

I started working at the Alumni Association as a temp in May 2001, but after three months, I accepted a full-time position and never looked back. I’ve been with the Alumni Association for over 21 years now, mostly working at Camp Michigania, the Alumni Association’s family camp for Michigan alums and their families.

Growing up in Detroit, I never ever thought I’d work for a place like this. I can’t swim. I am not very outdoorsy. I had never been north of Flint. Yet, somehow, this was a good fit.

Michigania is rooted in tradition. Even when the details of those traditions changed, the heart of what made camp special stayed true. The magic was in the relationships, the independence, the familiarity, and the feeling of home.

Here, people get the chance to be equestrians, avid sailors, master crafters — anything they want to be. Some campers have been visiting Camp Michigania since the ’60s, now bringing generations of their families to share in the magic. Some of the staff had been camping at Michigania since they were babies, being dropped off at the nursery before they turned 2.

Over time, I came to feel that Camp Michigania was home as well. I took pride in the work I was doing and I truly believe that I had a positive impact on staff culture and experience, which enhanced the camper experience as well.

But for every great moment, we must recognize camp isn’t perfect. Early on, I asked myself why more alums don’t come to camp, why don’t they know about this amazing place?

The answer was simple: camp is in high demand and with long waitlists, there wasn’t a need to advertise. So, we didn’t, which made it difficult for new families to get in. And for new families that did get in, I often heard that it was difficult to “figure camp out” because fellow campers were seasoned professionals in comparison — a feeling I remembered all too well.

It was evident to me that we had a huge challenge on our hands. How do we honor and respect our long-time campers while ensuring we are being as open as possible for new campers of different backgrounds?

After all, Camp Michigania is a place for all, and all of our alums deserve the accessibility to experience it for themselves.

Though I briefly left for another role in the Alumni Association, camp called me home and I am now director of Camp Michigania. Now, it’s my responsibility to solve the challenges we face — but I can’t do it alone.

I need the help of our amazing Michigania team, who are passionate and dedicated to making sure camp remains a great place. I need the help of our campers, the heart and soul of the “Michigania Magic,” to help us answer this question and the others that will inevitably arise.

We have already begun implementing plans to expand the offerings of Michigania so that alumni and University partners can access the site year-round. We are working with campers to make sure everyone who comes to Michigania feels like it is a place for them.

James McRae, x’97, is the director of Camp Michigania.

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