How to Make an Internship Work for You (Even If You Don’t Have a Lot of Money)

SCA intern gathers data for USFWS.

For many people, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) conjures up visions of crews in parks, working to restore trails and areas damaged by natural disasters. But another important facet of the SCA’s mission is its wide offering of internships. Through SCA’s intern programs, young people have the opportunity to receive vital, on-the-job experience at some of the most important parks, federal agencies, and environmental organizations in the country, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Geology Service (USGS), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the Nature Conservancy, AmeriCorps, Leave No Trace, and more. In addition to their value for college and graduate applications, internships can act as an open door to some of the most coveted positions in the conservation world.

Unfortunately, since many corporate internships are unpaid, there exists a perception that these programs are accessible only for those who can afford to pay their own way. But in the case of SCA internships, which offer a wide range of benefits, this couldn’t be more false. “What really makes the SCA stand out is that they provide the whole nine yards. Food and lodging, plus round-trip airfare and a biweekly salary,” says SCA alum Daniel Agudelo. “Sure, maybe the salary isn’t the highest, but it’s enough to cover the basics. And that’s all you need during your service anyway.”

Positions with the SCA are expense-paid, providing participant living and travel allowances plus housing. In addition, qualifying members are eligible for AmeriCorps Education Awards that can be used to finance further education or pay off existing student loans. That said, it is an excellent idea to plan ahead financially for your internship, and to adhere to a budget while on it. Here are four key tips from former SCA interns to help you make the most of your experience.

Four Tips for Living on an SCA Stipend

Take Advantage of the Perks

Michelle Clark served as an SCA intern at Hovenweep National Monument in Colorado and Utah. But that was far from the only place she saw. “I traveled to different national parks and monuments almost every single weekend,” she recalls. The roster of parks she mentions is impressive: Grand Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Chaco Culture, Natural Bridges. “I used an annual pass to get into all of them so I didn’t have to pay an entrance fee,” she continues. “I brought old camping equipment from home and camped for free in federal land that bordered the parks instead of paying to stay in the campgrounds.

Plan for Local Cost of Living

“SCA Internships range from the heart of Los Angeles to 20 miles north of the Arctic Circle,” says Agudelo, a three-time SCA intern who is now a ranger at the Everglades National Park. And since SCA stipends and living allowances vary per program and location – along with local housing prices and cost of living –it’s wise to plan ahead! Agudelo also recommends using the SCA housing allowance to help cover costs, if you can. “If SCA gives you a monthly housing allowance,” he advises, “try finding a place cheaper than what you have to pay so you can save that extra hundred or two hundred dollars.”

Go Carless, or Share Travel Expenses

“I’ve found that the living stipend goes a lot farther if you don’t have a car,” says Sarah Scruggs, a three-time SCA intern whose most recent posting was at the Mount Saint Helens National Monument in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. “But if you do, there are definitely ways to work with that, like taking a friend and splitting the cost of gas or limiting the longer trips you take.” Indeed, Scruggs found that sharing car trips – either by offering rides or receiving them – was a great way to make new friends among rangers and fellow interns.

Hone Your Cooking Skills

Hovenweep was about 50 miles away from the nearest town, so there wasn’t any pizza delivery or restaurants to be tempted with,” says Michelle Clark. “A great side effect of cooking on my own was that I ate extremely healthy food. Between my weekend hiking and lack of junk food, I was healthier than I had ever been before.” Scruggs agrees, adding: “For groceries, it definitely is a good investment to become a club member/MVP of the major store in the area. Take this chance to learn how to cook, handle money like an adult, and get the hang of being a baller on a budget.”

SCA: The Internship that Keeps Paying Off 

What all three rangers also agree on is how important their internships were for them. “I don’t know where I’d be without the internships,” says Clark, who recently set out to drive cross-country again – to a permanent NPS position at Death Valley National Park. “They have directly led to some of the best experiences in my life, and a career working in parks.”

For Scruggs – who is moving on to her fourth internship, the internships are all about “finding out how I want to continue my education and career; creating professional connections; getting to explore some of the coolest places; and learning how to adapt to a range of social, cultural, and natural environments.”

And for Agudelo? “I say this over and over again: I owe everything to SCA! They’re the ones who woke my passion up and the internships at different national parks was what got my foot in the door of the NPS – and now I’m a park ranger!”


Do you think an SCA internship might be right for you? Find out which of our positions are hot right now by clicking here