After high school or college many young adults wish to wade into the waters of a potential career rather than diving into the deep end. For those interested in working at a national or state park, forest or refuge, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) is a good place to test the water.
SCA is dedicated to encouraging a new generation of conservation leaders, advancing the land ethic, and helping to conserve the nation's natural and cultural resources by placing nearly 3,000 high school, college and graduate student members in the field each year. They annually provide more than 1.5 million hours of conservation service in national parks, forests and on other public lands.
"It's a great experience," said Julia Nagle, of Pittsburg, Penn.
Nagle is one of four SCA interns working at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this summer. The others are Emily Williams of Titusville, Fla., Samantha Dingfelder of Warsaw, Mo., and Eve Smallwood of Springfield, Ill.
Visitors to the refuge already may have met one or all of them since they have been providing visitor information for several months.
"We've been working at the refuge's visitor center and visitor contact station (at Mile 58 of the Sterling Highway), between Sterling and Cooper Landing. We've also been assisting with various trail maintenance tasks throughout the summer and giving natural history campfire presentations on weekends at the amphitheater at Hidden Lake Campground (in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area)," Nagle said.
In regard to this later responsibility, Nagle said it has been very rewarding to share her passion for public lands with others.
"We picked one topic at the beginning of summer and really researched it. We talk about trees of the Kenai Peninsula, while others have chosen salmon to talk about. It's educational, but very informal, and so far it's been well received. We have around 40 people each week, and had as many as 65 people once. It's a lot of kids, but there are a lot of adults, too," she said.
Since needs often outpace budgets on America's public lands, such interactions with the public are challenging to provide annually. As such, the efforts of SCA volunteers have become essential to allowing federal and state land-management agencies, as well as non-profit organizations, to meet the needs of the public in ways which wouldn't otherwise be possible.
However, Nagle said since she gets an education while giving one, it's tough to say who gains more from the program.
"It goes both ways," she said.
For example, Nagle was a political a science major in college, and this continues to be her main area of interest. She said her time as an SCA intern has already taught her a lot about the process of who gets what, where, when and why.
"I'm interested in public policy and this is a good way to understand what the needs are, how things work and how public lands are managed, so if I go into this field I'll have a better idea of how things run," she said.
Fellow SCA intern Eve Smallwood shared similar sentiments about what she was gaining toward a future career from her time at the refuge.
"I'm interested in environmental education, and I wanted a position that would allow me to get a feel for it, to make sure this is what I want to do. Here I'm immersed in it. I work directly with Michelle Ostrowski (the refuge's environmental education specialist), so I get to see her develop programs, she has me develop programs, and then we get to do the programs, field trips and summer camps. It's hands-on all the time," Smallwood said.
The SCA experience leads many interns to become lifelong stewards of the land, and 60 percent of SCA interns go on to successful careers in many areas of conservation. At the refuge, four permanent staff members got started through the SCA program, including Ostrowski, wildlife biologist Liz Jozwiak, law enforcement ranger Rob Barto and backcountry ranger Scott Slavik.
Nagle said no matter where her career path takes her in life, she will always have fond memories of her SCA experiences and her time at the refuge.
"I've always wanted to visit Alaska. SCA provided an ideal opportunity for me to simultaneously experience this incredible wilderness, while gaining valuable work skills and giving back to the public through volunteerism. I'd recommend this program for anyone who loves the outdoors and wants to make a difference," she said.
For more information about the Student Conservation Association, visit the SCA Web site at www.theSCA.org.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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