by Song Gao, Centennial Volunteer Ambassador
A year ago, I had never heard of America’s national parks. Today, as the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, I’m a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).
What a short, strange trip it’s been.
Of all the sites at GGNRA, I may be the most atypical. For one thing, I’m 24 years old. The average national park visitor is much closer to retirement age. I’m also Chinese, whereas nearly 80% of park patrons are white.
As the Park Service embarks on its second hundred years, it is also at a crossroads as it strives to better reflect the varied cultures and communities that make up the US population at large.
That, in fact, is why I am here.
As a park ambassador, I reach out into local neighborhoods, build new relationships and organize volunteer projects. Although I’ve been in this role for only a few months, I’ve already made two important discoveries.
First, the National Park Service represents an expansive and inclusive heritage. At GGNRA alone, our story spans from Native Americans to Spanish explorers, the Gold Rush and beyond. We feature coastal redwoods, abundant wildlife, historic lighthouses, military landmarks and the legendary Alcatraz. There truly is something here for everyone – something powerful and unifying – though too few people recognize that.
Perhaps it’s because we don’t often think of a national park being located in a major urban center. Maybe we’re just too busy with our everyday lives to notice. For some, the word “ranger” conjures uneasy images of law enforcement, and as a result they keep their distance. But members of underrepresented ethnic and cultural communities will tell you that they need to see more people like themselves on park staffs before they’ll feel accepted, comfortable and secure. And that leads to my second takeaway.
For me, the vibe at GGNRA has been welcoming from Day One. The staff here is open-minded, not afraid of change, and they value my opinions even though I am “just an intern.” I don’t feel judged on where I’m from or how I look. My fresh perspectives and talents are appreciated. It feels like a team. It feels like a family.
Some quick background: I was born in China but grew up in Hawaii. My family moved there when I was 12, exposing me to a vast natural playground consisting of tropical forests, snowy alpine deserts and endless beaches. This unique environment inspired a passion for nature, which led to my introduction last year to the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and its NPS Academy, which trains young adults for careers in national parks.
At a week-long orientation at Grand Teton National Park, I encountered uplifting diversity among the scores of other Academy students from different parts of country, and of different ethnicities and nationalities. I also met national park superintendents, chiefs of interpretation, biologists and others determined to create a friendly, inclusive environment for younger people to put their talents to work in national parks.
Personally, I have always looked at the effort made rather than one’s reputation. This sincere investment of time and energy was eye-opening and empowering.
From there, I took an SCA internship that was based in Boston but allowed me to float among 15 different national parks. I immersed myself in the American Revolution, explored the region’s whaling heritage, toured JFK’s childhood home, and protected endangered shore birds. And now I am introducing others to the wonders of our national parks at GGNRA. Long term, I hope to earn my Master’s degree in environmental science and continue on this professional pathway with the National Park Service.
Perhaps because I am not from the Bay Area it is difficult to take this extraordinary park for granted. I know others my age – both friends and local community members – seem preoccupied with technology and the velocity of modern life. But I have found that when I bring them to GGNRA, a slower pace and calm reflection occur naturally. Sure, they’re still on their cell phone posting to Snapchat or Facebook, but they don’t need to fully unplug – they need a role model. I want to be that role model.
In addition to GGNRA, the United States is home to more than 400 national parks, monuments, battlefields, memorials and historic sites. Each one has the ability to inspire and amaze, and collectively they represent the common ground that binds us as a people. So, as the centennial slogan says, go out and “find your park.” I am confident that, like me, you will find so much more.