Finding Family At Fish Camp

By Sam Peshek, Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications

Fish Camp 2018 may be over, but the experience Travis Johnston helped create for this year’s class of incoming Aggies will last a lifetime.

Talk to Travis Johnston and it’s easy to understand how he fits the mold of Fish Camp head director at Texas A&M University.

He speaks with the clear, kind and energetic cadence one would come to expect from the person who oversees the introduction of 6,500 soon-to-be freshmen into what it means to be an Aggie at a school famous for its spirit and school pride.

What takes some explaining is how his infectious passion for Fish Camp is anchored in the tragedy of losing both of his parents as a college student.

In order to know and understand Travis Johnston, you need to know and understand Fish Camp.

‘A lonely experience’

Every year for the last 64 years, incoming Texas A&M freshmen have been invited to take part in the four-day orientation in East Texas where Aggies-to-be learn about Aggie traditions like Yell Practice, Silver Taps, Muster and learn about Texas A&M’s more than 1,000 student organizations.

By the time the event is finished, students will have built meaningful friendships with other freshmen and upperclassmen counselors, will have knowledge of how to get involved outside of classes at Texas A&M and be energized to begin classes in the fall semester.

The experience can be a culture shock for students of non-Aggie parents or a first-generation student like Johnston, a Victoria, Texas native, who registered in the summer of 2013 at the insistence of a friend from high school.

On Johnston’s first day of the camp he felt anxious, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, unsure of what all the jumping, stomping, yelling and clapping was about.

“I hated it,” Johnston said. “Having to be put in this new environment was a culture shock and I wasn’t open minded to it. But over the next day I got more comfortable and I was having a great time. I knew these were the people I wanted to surround myself with in college. Any fear I had about going to college was gone during the bus ride back.”

(Mark Guerrero/Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications)

After Fish Camp Head Director Travis Johnston’s parents passed away, Aggies in his Fish Camp group came to his side. His experience inspired him to structure the summer orientation program in a way that includes more incoming students and strengthens bonds between Aggies that endure beyond graduation. (Mark Guerrero/Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications)

Students are strongly encouraged to get involved in extracurricular organizations when classes start, but being a first-generation college student, Johnston just wanted to get acclimated to school first.

Before he could make the next step out of his comfort zone, his mother Leticia fell ill with a kidney infection early in the spring semester of college.

“I hadn’t really gotten involved [in campus life] that year because of my mother,” Johnston said. “It was a lonely experience. I never found my voice.”

It was in grappling with his mother’s illness that he learned an important Fish Camp lesson: the freshmen and counselors in your group aren’t just summer friends, they’re family.

When his mother died in April 2014, the texts, cards and care packages from his Fish Camp Family flooded in.

“When I got back to campus my room was filled with stuff,” Johnston said. “I didn’t understand what it meant at first, but these people aren’t just there for four days at Fish Camp. They’re there for your time at Texas A&M and beyond.”

That extended hand inspired him to give back to an organization that helped him through a traumatic time in his life.

‘A reason to get out of bed’

During the fall semester of his sophomore year, Johnston decided to try his hand at being a Fish Camp counselor. He wanted to be a calming presence for those who entered Fish Camp with similar hesitations and anxieties as him.

He became more involved in Fish Camp and became a second-year counselor as a junior and then as a co-chair in September 2016. Just as Fish Camp and academic responsibilities were piling on, along with studying for the MCAT, his father, David Wayne Johnston, became ill in January 2017.

When Johnston was nine years old, his father had experienced congestive heart failure and had exceeded the average life expectancy at that point.

With his mother gone and a sister with a child and family obligations of her own, it was up to Johnston to look after his father. That meant waking up at 5 a.m. every day during the spring semester to take care of classwork and Fish Camp co-chair duties, going to classes, driving to Houston Medical Center and back every day. The endless days of work and commuting and nights with three hours of sleep, Johnston began to doubt whether staying in school for the semester would be viable.

(Mark Guerrero/Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications)

Fish Camp Head Director Travis Johnston said that if he never had Fish Camp commitments to keep while his father battled illness, he might have left school entirely. (Mark Guerrero/Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications)

But if he quit, he wouldn’t be able to give back to Fish Camp, he would be thrown off course on his path to graduation and graduate school.

Instead of pulling out of school, he followed his father’s advice.

“My dad always told me that there’s never a better time than now to do something,” he said.

But Johnston’s father’s health took a turn, and he passed away at the age of 53 in March 2017.

The support he received from his Fish Camp family changed the trajectory of his life entirely.

“The outreach and support I received as a freshman was one thing, but I had so much support and people around me this time,” Johnston said. “They gave me a reason to get out of bed each day, because the responsibilities gave me a way to cope and grieve in a different way and not just stay at home.”

Katelyn Murphy, a co-chair for one of this year’s sessions and part of the class of 2018, has known Johnston since their first year as counselors. She said that his ability to channel his emotions into Fish Camp had a positive impact on the organization and helped develop him into the director he is today.

“It was hard for us because we didn’t know how to approach it,” Murphy said about Johnston losing his father. “But he used it as motivation to keep going and make his parents proud. He showed us that life is going to throw a lot of different things your way. It’s up to you how you react to them and you don’t let things that happen to you determine who you’re going to be.

‘You’ll never be given something you can’t handle’

Johnston became head director of Fish Camp in September 2017 and will continue that role through October 2018. Inspired by the cardiologists that cared for his father during his childhood and in college, he graduated in May 2018 with a degree in animal science and will soon begin working toward his masters of biomedical sciences.

Although both of his parents were taken from him, he said he became a stronger person – the type of role model incoming freshmen need at Fish Camp as they start their own lives as part of the Aggie family.

(Mark Guerrero/Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications)

Fish Camp counselors who have worked alongside Head Director Travis Johnston the last two years said they are inspired by his passion for the organization and the type of leader he has become. (Mark Guerrero/Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications)

His desire to extend a hand to incoming freshmen didn’t stop at continuing the Fish Camp tradition and enhancing it. He wanted to expand it to more students.

So this year, under Johnston’s guidance, Fish Camp will introduce a program called “Tradition Night” where freshmen athletes can take part in the quintessential Aggie experience.

The organization also added diversity as one of its core values for 2018, offering more camp-specific scholarship opportunities so that cost of attendance isn’t a barrier for freshmen wanting to take part.

Johnston doesn’t get paid for the work he does as head director, which Murphy said makes her even more impressed by the positive changes he has made and the work ethic he maintains.

“To see him develop as a counselor, then a staff member and as a director has been very impressive,” Murphy said. “His priority is bettering the organization for future classes.”

When soon-to-be-Aggies talk to Johnston and they hear his voice, he said he will be able to draw upon the highs and lows of his personal journey at Texas A&M, and let them know the best is yet to come at Texas A&M.

“I want to tell everyone that no matter what you’re going through or what seems impossible, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel,” Johnston said. “It’s cliché, but I truly am a believer that you’ll never be given something you can’t handle.”


Video by Donny Hall/Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications

Media contact: Sam Peshek, 979-845-4680, sam.peshek@tamu.edu.


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