From Hamilton to Working for the National Park Service
My first day working for the National Park Service, I packed up my camping gear and boarded a park boat. I had just driven five days from Connecticut to Utah, only to begin a five-hour boat ride down Lake Powell to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area park headquarters. We navigated through narrow canyons and along massive red cliffs. My supervisor narrated the entire ride. She talked about geology, paleontology, archaeology, dam construction, invasive species, boating rules, and I took in every second of it! I was curious about everything I saw, and she had an answer for each inquiry. My mind was racing with all the things I learned in my Hamilton geoscience classes, and I couldn’t believe how one person could know so much about one place. As I fell asleep in my tent that night, I thought -- wow, I have the coolest job ever. The best part is, I still feel the same way four years later.
I began my career as a seasonal interpretive park ranger. As a seasonal employee, we work for six months out of the year, generally in the summer, when parks are busy. As interpretive park rangers, we provide information about the park in visitor centers and through programming. The term interpretation means that we convey information in a compelling way that inspires visitors to think critically about a place and the reasons why it is protected as a national park site.
Learning about a place you experience can also facilitate a connection or bond to that place, and this emotional connection helps visitors to care even more about a park’s protection and preservation. As interpretive park rangers, our goal is to carry out the mission of the National Park Service (NPS), which calls for the public to have access to enjoy these places of significance and to protect them for this and future generations. This mission drives all of our work in the 421 units (and growing!) of the NPS, of which I have worked at seven.
Admittedly, the hardest part of my job is picking up and moving from a place that you grow to love. So, after three summers working and three winters volunteering in national parks, I decided to pursue a master’s degree to help advance my career. At this point, I was a very transient person. I didn’t picture myself returning to the traditional classroom or taking time off working in national parks. I began online in 2019 through Clemson University’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management. I never could have predicted that I would be graduating this December, in the middle of a pandemic that forced the majority of education and business to move online.
As a student, I obtained a year-round position with the NPS as an outdoor recreation planner in Saint Paul, Minnesota. My primary responsibility is to manage the park’s kayak rental program that uses a system similar to city bike share. Visitors pick up a kayak from one location, paddle downstream, and return the equipment to a return station. This unique solution allows people to recreate on the Mississippi River without owning a car or any of their own equipment. The rental stations are strategically located near public transportation hubs and near bike share stations to attract users throughout the city. I’m personally passionate about the benefits of kayaking on physical and mental health, and the program became extremely popular this summer as a safe and socially distant activity. I am fortunate that my NPS career has provided so many unique opportunities. I learn something new every day on the job. No two jobs and no two parks are ever the same. I collaborate with and learn from incredible co-workers. I believe Hamilton left me well-prepared for my career. I have a curiosity and willingness to learn — whether it was about 200 million-year-old rocks or the Civil War. I didn’t realize it until I worked on Alcatraz Island and addressed crowds of 300 people, that Hamilton prepared me to speak with calm conviction. In preparing strategic plans and press releases, I used skills I learned at Hamilton to write persuasively.
The best advice I have for current Hamilton students is to explore your interests with passion and excitement. If you find your pursuits lead to the NPS, all the better! There is no “typical” path to the park service. As a geoscience major, I work alongside park rangers with degrees in anthropology, theater, political science, biology, and sociology. This variety makes for the best advocates for public lands because people come to national parks for so many reasons. Visitors seek to find solace, adventure, take risks, build community, find independence, learn a skill, learn about themselves, enjoy scenery, grow spiritually, exercise, rest, and escape. If any of these motivations to recreate resonates with you, I encourage you to go out and explore national parks and public spaces around you. If you’re curious about turning that passion into a career, consider reaching out -- I’m more than happy to help anyone navigate a career in public service!