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Eight students standing in front of a mountain range talking to a park ranger.

Careers in the Park: A Hands-On Student Excursion

Karen Barton, professor of Geography, GIS and Sustainability, took 14 UNC students up to Estes Park for a hands-on workshop titled “Careers in National Parks and Protected Areas.”

Pictured are UNC students talking with a National Park Service ranger while out in the field.

Working a nine-to-five job doesn’t always afford one the most scenic views.

Whether it’s the walls of a cubicle or a window peering out into an office parking lot, the vistas of professional life generally aren’t anything to write home about.

Well, for most people, that is.

From Aug. 13-17, Karen Barton, professor of Geography, GIS and Sustainability in the University of Northern Colorado’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, took 14 UNC students up to Estes Park for a hands-on workshop titled “Careers in National Parks and Protected Areas.”

Over the course of those five days, students worked, hung out with and learned practical and professional skills from park workers, research center staff, wilderness volunteers and more – people whose day-to-day views consist of sloping mountains and tree-dappled plains.

But beyond simply basking in the scenic vistas of Colorado’s natural splendor, Barton said the goal of the workshop was to provide the attending students with an in-depth knowledge of the kinds of careers one can pursue in the country’s parks and protected areas, as well as giving them some of the skills needed to dip their toes into those professional waters.

“The biggest impact was meeting park staff and volunteers and learning about their work,” Barton said. “They were incredibly gracious to our students and motivated many of them to think about careers with the parks.”

The workshop was geared toward giving students a wide variety of experiences within the park. Offerings included time spent doing trail maintenance with Poudre Wilderness volunteers Debbie Lewis and Brooks Pardew, an informational session on how to write a professional/government resume hosted by Scott Esser, director of the Continental Divide Research Learning Center, to simply taking a few hikes through the mountains with the National Park Service trail crew. Through these experiences, those who attended were given the full scope of what it might be like to work in a park.

Ethan Weatherwax, a junior History and Secondary Education major, said he initially signed up for the workshop somewhat on a whim, but that the information provided throughout the event was more pertinent to him than he expected.

“I think I was one of, like, two people there that wasn't a GIS major,” Weatherwax said. “But I think that having those different perspectives, you know, looking at something from a GIS perspective and a history perspective and seeing the same thing in two completely different ways was really eye-opening.”

In particular, he noted how useful the resume discussion would likely be for him going forward.

“Resumes are so important for basically any job, and especially for federal resumes, I had no idea what went into one,” he said. “I’d heard that if you went over one page, you’re doing it wrong. [Scott’s] was 36 [pages].” 

Celine Torres, a senior Anthropology major with a Geography minor, spent the summer working in Rocky Mountain National Park as part of the trail maintenance revegetation crew. She participated in the workshop by working with the student attendees and educating them on the ins and outs of park vegetation control.

“It’s basically just like advanced gardening,” Torres said. “Although it’s still really cool, of course.”

According to Torres, the main value of the workshop was how it broke down some of the stigmas surrounding careers in the national parks and opened students' eyes to a broader range of possibilities.

“Over the summer, I wasn't working with just geographers and anthropologists and scientists,” Torres said. “Matter of fact, half my crew was actually, like, literature or education majors. Things that might seem like unrelated fields. But to work in the parks, you don’t have to come from a scientific background. There are all kinds of different opportunities people just don’t know about.”

Torres went on to highlight how the National Park Service employs all sorts of people, including firefighters, educators, medical professionals, businesspeople, marketers and more – a statement Weatherwax concurred with.

“I learned that almost any kind of job you can have outside of the park, you can have inside the park too.”

For Barton, the broadening of students’ horizons and helping them to have experiences they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have in a classroom is what these kinds of field excursions are all about.

“In my opinion, all field opportunities are valuable and worthwhile ones, since they allow students to stretch their imaginations and engage in hands-on, visceral experiences,” she said.

As in-the-field outings like these start to become possible again as we move further from the events of 2020, Barton said she hopes to see, and facilitate, as many as possible.

“I personally never had any experiences like this as an undergraduate student. Having a chance to meet professionals working in your dream field is something very unique to UNC.”

— written by Duard Headley

Field experiences like the Careers in the Park workshop are made possible in part to contributions from individual donors. Any contributions made to these programs go directly toward helping more students be able to participate in these one-of-a-kind experiences.

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