Editor's note: The following is the latest installment of an occasional series we run to provide a window into the Student Conservation Association and the great work it performs in connecting youth with the out of doors in general, and national parks specifically. This article was written by Russ Aguilar, who has participated in the NPS Academy and worked in parks during the summer.
It was the summer of 2010, at the conclusion of my first ‘Camping Adventures with My Parents’ outreach program at Mount Rainier National Park. I had arrived just two weeks earlier, and spent all my time planning, practicing, and preparing with my supervisor and two fellow Student Conservation Association interns.
I was dirty, tired, confused, sore and yet elated because, so far, everything had gone off without a hitch. That was when it hit me: This is real. This is actual work that people do for a living.
It was at that moment I knew I wanted to devote my life to conservation by sharing the natural world with others.
The CAMP program brought underserved families from urban areas to a national park for three days of camping, exploring, eating s’mores, and more. As an Outreach Intern, I mostly got to work with kids and connecting urban families to nature. The significance of my role wasn't lost on me. Creating a tradition of appreciating the natural world is essential to its protection.
As more and more people live and grow up in cities, many forget the importance of nature in not only keeping us alive, but also as a source of great happiness. Exploring the outdoors is educational, fun, and healthy, and I believe that access to nature should be a human right.
Our program showed participants that when you are in a national park, you can see a world of beauty both subtle and loud, wild and ordered, mystifying yet instantly understood. It can be a place to look around at your surroundings and yourself, and stop and think about who you are without anyone watching.
Experiencing Mount Rainier with kids who are used to seeing little but city blocks made me feel like I was seeing it for the first time, too. Which was pretty much true. I was blessed to grow up in a family that often visited national parks, but this was my first time at Rainier. I arrived on the second day of Interpretation Ranger training, during which the park rangers who specialized in Visitor Services were learning about the park.
Barely a day before, I’d finished my last final of my first year of college and flew to a state I’d never seen to work with a bunch of people I’d never met and do something I’d never done. I was scared as hell.
When the van full of rangers began the drive from Longmire to Paradise, a 2,700-foot climb with a view of waterfalls, canyons, and steep mountain ranges on all sides, I was completely dumbfounded by the beauty around me. My fear was quickly replaced with a feeling of the sublime. I kept thinking: why hasn’t anybody told me about this place? I should have been here ages ago! Am I seriously living here?
Young and naïve, I thought I knew about America’s wonders from all of those National Geographics I’d read. Here, my understanding of natural beauty was completely deconstructed.
Much affected by this internship, I became an Environmental Studies major and completed two more SCA internships, one at a small wetland-prairie refuge in northern Minnesota with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and one at Yellowstone. The Yellowstone internship was part of NPS Academy, a collaborative program between SCA and the National Park Service that introduces college students from diverse backgrounds to national parks and the range of career opportunities within NPS.
NPS Academy began with a week-long training program over Spring Break; mine took place at Grand Teton National Park. This year, over the first two weeks of March, SCA and NPS will host nearly 100 students at Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, and Kenai Fjords national parks. I can only hope they get as much out of their experience as I did, especially the summer internship portion.
As a uniformed member of Yellowstone’s Canyon Visitor Education Center staff, my primary duties included stafﬁng the visitor desk, roving the trails, and planning and performing interpretive and educational programs for the public on a wide range of topics. I performed the same number of programs as the seasonal rangers and had some miscellaneous duties.
Perhaps the aspect of the National Park System that appeals to me most is that it exists for the American public. I felt heartened every day that I was not working for a service installed on behalf of only those who could pay. But for many, there are considerable barriers, financial and cultural, that prevent them from experiencing natural spaces. Without a shared understanding of nature, I believe it will be difficult for America to get beyond many of the environmental problems of our day.
There are many things that each of us can do to help save the natural world, and I think the biggest of them all is sharing the joy that nature brings you with others.
Russ Aguilar is a senior at Carleton College in Minnesota.