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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.

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Student Conservation Association