College students explore career paths in national parks


SCA’s NPS Academy in the news

GATLINBURG — LeConte Creek is a cold, fast-flowing stream in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where every rock seems to shelter some form of aquatic life, whether it be caddisfly, stonefly or the occasional salamander.

Earlier this week 20 college students waded these waters with seine nets and buckets as part of a program called NPS Academy that’s aimed at creating a younger and more diverse workforce for national parks. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) created the NPS Academy five years ago, and the Smokies is one of four parks across the U.S. to participate.

For the most part the students attend historically black colleges or schools that are largely Hispanic. Chosen from hundreds of applicants, they’re spending their spring break in the Smokies taking field trips, attending workshops, and generally learning more about job opportunities in the National Park Service.

Joining them in LeConte Creek this week was Cassius Cash, the park’s new superintendent, and the first black to hold the position. Growing up in Memphis, one of Cash’s favorite television shows was “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”

“That show really sparked my imagination, but being a kid in an urban setting, I never considered a job like that,” Cash said.

Cash was attending the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff with hopes of becoming a doctor when the U.S. Forest Service visited campus one day to interview students for internships. One of the positions was in wildlife biology. Cash wasn’t optimistic about his chances, but he practiced for the interview, and when his time came, he talked about his experiences as a Boy Scout.

As a result of that interview, Cash went on to study wildlife management at Oregon State University, which led to an 18-year career as a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

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Student Conservation Association