Spring breakers spend time in the Smokies learning the mountains

Mar. 24, 2013 @ 03:55 PM

Thirty college students from 20 states are participating in an alternative spring break program in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, learning about different careers within the park that they may be interested in pursuing after school.

National Park Service Academy, sponsored by the Student Conservation Association (SCA), is an annual program that sends students to the Smokies, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. Students go through an application process and are hand-picked for each program.

Dana Soehn, park spokeswoman who is leading the NPS Academy in the Smokies, said the students have some sort of background or interest that might lead them to careers in the park, whether they’re majoring in forestry or accounting.

“All these students are interested in park careers at some level,” Soehn said. “Our goal is to expose them to these different career paths and show them the relevency of national parks to their personal lives and try to make those connections.”

The students participate in activities geared toward careers in resource education, law enforcement, administrative budgeting, facilities management and contracting, among others.

“There are so many different careers in the park service that you don’t think about,” Soehn said. “You usually think of park rangers, but even a budget or finance major has a place in the park.”

Camille Vincent, a history major at Spellman College in Atlanta, said she heard about the program through her school’s history department and got involved because she wants to be an archivist.

“I wanted to join the program to see what kind of jobs I could do because I work in a library right now, and I wanted to see what I could do in the outdoors,” Vincent said.

Corina Rendon, an environmental education and interpretation major at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said she’s known about SCA since her freshman year and thought it would be a good opportunity to get more experience with the park service.

“My past experiences have been all over the place with interpretation, but I’ve never really gotten actual park-setting experience,” Rendon said. “I thought this was perfect because I could actually see what a park does with education and interpretation.”

The students, primarily upperclassmen, break up into three groups of 10 and rotate among all the different activities throughout the week. They collected aquatic invertebrates in a stream and learned how to study the health of the water ecosystem; they learned how to manage potentially dangerous wildlife like bears and boars; they worked with a vegetation specialist in the greenhouse to learn how to restore the natural environment; they also went on an ecology hike with three forest ecologists.

“I was really looking forward to talking to the forestry and vegetation management crew,” said Syed-Waqar Shah, who studies environmental resource management at Virginia Tech University. “It was cool to see the different jobs and career paths in the park.”

The students worked on service projects Friday, half doing trail work and the other half leading park-related classes with English as a Second Language students at Pi Beta Phi Elementary School.

“We think that’s a great way to give back,” Soehn said. “After learning about the program, they’ll be teaching it to the kids.”

The spring break program ends today, but some of the students will also be set up with summer internships as a part of the program.