In August of 2002, I landed at Kipahulu airport on the island of Maui. After gathering my luggage and breathing my first breath of fresh Hawaiian air, I began looking for my NPS contact. She found me and with a friendly “Aloha,” she welcomed me to the start of my first National Park Service experience.
by Laura Cohen, ’02
In August of 2002, I landed at Kipahulu airport on the island of Maui. After gathering my luggage and breathing my first breath of fresh Hawaiian air, I began looking for my NPS contact. She found me and with a friendly “Aloha,” she welcomed me to the start of my first National Park Service experience
It was my first day as a Student Conservation Association (SCA) Intern at Haleakala National Park (HALE). Upon entering the park vehicle, the distressed call came across the radio: “All park EMT, please report to .4 miles down Sliding Sands Trail. 78 year old male. Cardiac Arrest. CPR in progress. Ambulance in Route. KMT 777.”
Thankfully, I did not get carsick. We spent the next 45 minutes exceeding the speed limit up 30 miles of one of the most tortuous and steeply graded roads in the world – Haleakala Highway. The 1980s white Bronco squealed around every hairpin turn. I was a 24 year old kid from Philly. I was used to roads designed in the 1700s, laid out in grids. Random radio traffic interrupted our focused silence relaying that CPR was still being administered and that the ambulance had yet to arrive. It dawned on me that the ambulance was making the same roundabout trip up the mountain that we were. I began to realize what life was going to be like for the next 12 weeks, stuck on top of a mountain at 7,000 feet with the closest town 45 minutes away. This was a new experience for me, and I loved every minute of it.
Since that first day, I have continued to love every minute of it. The SCA experience allowed me to step outside of my box and experience the National Park Service up close and personal. As an SCA intern, I was an integral member of the staff and completed the exact same tasks as a paid park ranger. While the paid staff often thanked me for doing the work for only $60 a week, I wanted to thank them. The greatest earnings from my SCA experience came not from the stipend, but from the lessons that I learned.
While working at HALE, I opened the park visitor center at 10,023 feet at 4 o’clock in the morning. While to some, that shift may have seemed a nightmare, it was my absolute favorite. Believe it or not, it was one of the busiest times at HALE. Hundreds of tourists were told by their guidebooks to drive up to Haleakala and watch the sunrise. And so they did. Just after sunrise, they would get back in their cars and drive back down to check off what was next on their list. What was not in the guidebooks was that, while the sunrise is beautiful, the hours immediately following sunrise and right before sunset are actually the greatest times to view the giant 29 square mile erosional crater at the top of Haleakala. That, I soon discovered, was to be my job as an SCA intern and (in the near future) as an NPS employee. My job was to tell them what wasn’t in the guidebooks and to communicate the stories that couldn’t be told anywhere else.
My first day at HALE and the 12 weeks that followed helped me decide that the NPS was to be my future career. Whether it was taking visitors on hikes, helping them when they passed out from too little oxygen, or standing in 80 mph winds trying to take the air temperature, I knew that there was no other job for this kid from Philadelphia.
All of these years later, I have moved on from seasonal work at HALE, to becoming a secretary and seasonal interpreter at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP in Vermont, to a park ranger and currently Chief of Interpretation at Prince William Forest Park outside of Washington, DC. Now, as a supervisor of SCA members and park employees, I can reflect back on not only how much I accomplished as an SCA intern, but also how little our national parks would accomplish without SCA members. I also will never forget the life that was lost atop Haleakala the day I began my internship and the comfort his family felt in knowing that he passed away in so beautiful a place that was so close to the heaven.
Photos: top - Laura (right) and supervisor Audrey at Haleakala in 2002; bottom - Haleakal sunrise
Editor's note: This essay is part of the Why Service series. The series will feature stories from SCA alumni about what inspired them to serve. If you’d like to share your story of service, please email me your story!
Lauren Freedman,  Alumni Editorial Board Liaison