The Park Service and Student Conservation Association team up to show Native Alaskan youth some new career options.
On a snowy March afternoon in Seward, Alaska, I lead a dozen teenagers in a writing exercise. Weʼve filled a whiteboard with “Jobs You Could Have for the NPSˮ (ranger and scientist top the list), and now the students are huddled up imagining a career for themselves. Two boys lie on the floor discussing the best motor for a skiff; Stephen has decided on being a boat captain. But his friend Thomas is stuck.
“What do you want to be in the real world?ˮ I ask Thomas as we scan the list.
“A tattoo artist.ˮ
Stephen laughs and punches Thomas in the arm. Although we agree that Park Service employees probably won’t be getting mandatory arrowhead ink on their biceps anytime soon, I see potential. “Parks need artists,ˮ I tell Thomas as I circle to other students. “Keep thinking.ˮ
These kids are participants in a unique program called the NPS Academy, a joint diversity internship project between the Park Service and the Student Conservation Association (SCA) designed to recruit students for summer jobs in national parks, and perhaps, springboard them to career paths with the Park Service. In spring 2013, the program existed in three parks: Grand Tetons, Great Smokies, and here, at Kenai Fjords.
At our orientation week in Seward, the chosen students prepare for summer placements, honing outdoor skills and learning about group dynamics, naturalist observation, and communication. They tour Resurrection Bay by boat, meet Park Service staff, visit the Sea Life Center to touch crustaceans and watch seals, and they write: about origin stories and favorite places, memorable animal sightings, and now, about jobs. The students in my workshop have diverse backgrounds; most are Alaska Native (Yupik, Athabascan, Tlingit), one is Hispanic, two are African American, and a handful are white. All are from Alaska—some, from tiny villages like Scammon Bay; others, from Anchorage.
When I return to the boys, Stephen has sketched a harbor slip for his patrol boat, Thomas has covered his writing paper in intricate, Native-inspired graffiti art, and Iʼve got an idea for him: the NPS needs graphic artists. He raises his eyebrows. Think about it, I say. Logos, sketches for interpretive panels, web content, brochures. Who designed the silhouette of a grizzly bear on the “Attention: Bears Active in Areaˮ signs the students passed on their hike up a local trail? Thomasʼs eyes spark and his hand goes to the paper, sketching.
Attention NPS: Tattoo Artist Coming Your Way. Get ready for him.
Mark Vaughn, the associate regional director for NPS Alaska, spent most of his career as a commissioned officer for the Department of Defense, a workplace known for its diversity. Five years ago, in search of a new mission, Vaughn took a job with the Park Service. He anticipated the changes that come with any job transition, but when he entered the room to give his first NPS briefing, he saw something he didnʼt expect: Almost everyone in the chairs was white. This, despite the diversity in Anchorage, a city thrumming with immigrants and American citizens from all walks of life. And despite the fact that almost 15 percent of the stateʼs population are the Alaska Natives whose ancestors have called Alaska home for more than 10,000 years.
With Alaskaʼs variety visible from the window of his office, Vaughn admitted it was “very uncomfortable for me to see the lack of diversity in NPS.ˮ The experience triggered a basic, important question for him: Why was that room all white, when Alaska is not? What would it take to change that? He had a hunch that diversifying the Park Service in Alaska was going to begin, to use DOD lingo, with targeting new recruits.
Enter the Academy. Following the model established in 2011 at Grand Teton National Park, Vaughn worked with SCA to launch the program in Alaska in 2013. However, the Alaska Academy brings a unique slant. In addition to considering ethnic and economic diversity, it has a regional focus: participants must be from Alaska.
NPS Alaska spends a lot of time recruiting youth to work in parks; every year kids from California to Maryland arrive in the Last Frontier. The problem, says Vaughn, is “when you bring kids from elsewhere, they come to Alaska for an experience, but they donʼt usually come back and stay here.ˮ Vaughn realized they needed more than just ethnic diversity. He wanted to discover young Alaskans of diverse backgrounds and get them signed up to experience their home parks as employees.
A component of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) authorizes local hire in Alaskan parks. This amendment to NPSʼs typical hiring policy has been avidly championed by Alaskans in Congress, notably Sen. Lisa Murkoswki. Local hire offers a chance to “reach those kids who understand what it means to live in Alaska and have a long-term commitment to our state,ˮ as Vaughn puts it. Alaska Native kids in particular have connections to Alaska that run generations deep; not a passing interest, but a way of life. Especially in villages, “these kids have lived a subsistence lifestyle; they know about cold, remoteness,ˮ says Vaughn. They know what theyʼre getting into, and there’s a good chance that, with a job they love, theyʼll stay here, and Alaska will benefit.
Vaughn also sees the local recruitment strategy as key to reaching kids early with a “conservation ethos,ˮ building a population that will support the Park Service mission over the long haul. If Americaʼs Best Idea is to persist, it must earn support from Americans of all races, colors, and economic backgrounds, as well as from people who live in gateway areas, the park’s immediate neighbors. No one will change the NPS single-handedly. But Vaughn does have a private goal. He wonʼt be satisfied until “the NPSʼs Alaska Region better reflects the face of Alaska.ˮ
Getting from an idea on a drawing board to a crew of students in pickup trucks is no easy task. SCA staff spent months crisscrossing Alaska, visiting towns and high schools and community centers, spreading the word to teachers and elders and tribal leaders: Alaska parks want Alaska kids. Many kids from remote areas showed interest, and SCAʼs direct relationship with village contacts provided critical support for students ready to take on a new challenge.
Vaughn credits SCA’s persistent groundwork and rigorous training for the success of the program. The connections students made with other kids at the Seward orientation buffered them from the fear that can plague many teenagers: entering an unknown situation alone. “Bonds to each other helped the kids commit without the same level of anxiety,ˮ Vaughn says. Crew-member Christina Edwin said about her experience, “Living and working with a group of people…was a challenge, but I overcame it by learning good communication skills and setting boundaries.ˮ
Communication skills are valuable, but add to the package enthusiasm and the ability to swing a Pulaski and you have a highly prized park employee. Like most young interns, the Academy crew members got their first taste of the Park Service not as scientists or web designers but as trail workers doing hard labor. Based in Denali National Park, students spent a month camped out in the alpine tundra at Savage River. There, supervised by Denaliʼs professional trail crew and two SCA leaders, they improved drainage and tread and built 35 feet of rock wall to stabilize a steep slope. It was the first time any of them had worked on a crew or lived in a national park. Christina Edwin, an Athabascan teenager, wrote that she enjoyed waking up outside and working with a spectacular view. “I made great connections with people,ˮ she said. “I saw animals Iʼd never seen before, I found geodes. I felt really connected to my roots and my ancestors.ˮ
Maintenance positions—like trail workers—fly under the radar for most visitors. “When you go to a park, you donʼt see those folks,” says Vaughn. “The Academy helps us show kids the ʻinvisible jobs.ʼ ˮ He ticks off a list that mimics the kidsʼ ideas from March: “Accountants, researchers, boat captains, exhibits designers, IT people, deep-sea divers, graphic artists. We donʼt want kids to take the NPS off their option list because they think they have to be a [ranger in a] flat hat, speaking in front of groups.ˮ
The Park Serviceʼs diversity challenges will not end with a few minority students on a trail crew. It will take agency-wide, long-term commitment to change assumptions about whom parks are for and offer opportunities to people who might not ordinarily come across them. But action maintains momentum. Both the Park Service and SCA Alaska have committed to the Academy again this year. Down the road, Vaughn says, “I would love to be able to offer students a direct mentor in the Park Service, a clear link to step into a certain job. I want to be able to employ a kid in his own village.ˮ Jillian Morrissey, SCAʼs Alaska programs coordinator, agrees. “SCA’s Conservation Education Curriculum is focused on leadership, conservation, stewardship, and service. We need to connect to Alaskaʼs young people, encourage their well-being in our communities, and ignite a sense of belonging on our lands.ˮ After all, if Alaskan kids donʼt feel they belong in Alaskan parks, who does?
To read more about SCA and the NPS Academy, visit www.thesca.org/serve/program/nps-academy