SCA volunteers are known for their contributions to America’s parks and forests, but often less recognized is the extraordinary inﬂuence site supervisors have on these young stewards. Rangers, biologists, trail foremen, and others instruct, advise, and inspire SCA members on a daily basis, helping to shape everything from their perspectives to their careers.
During this, National Mentor Month, SCA salutes the many generous coordinators with whom we partner, and ask some long-time and much-admired SCA supervisors why mentoring matters to them.
SCA: You’ve got a lot to do. That’s why you bring on SCA. Yet you go the extra mile and invest so much in these young volunteers. Why?
Deb Williams, refuge manager, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico: It brings me joy – does that sound cheesy? (Laughs.) I want people to learn from the successes I’ve had in my career but also from my mistakes. When I was young, I didn’t know of the opportunities out there. It was really hard to break into conservation. On some selfish level, it makes me feel good to help guide people so they don’t have to face some of the struggles I faced, and to share my experience in a way that helps them make career-defining decisions and meet their ultimate goals.
Jon Beyer, wetland district manager, Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota: We try to expose our interns to a variety of experiences to show them the many career opportunities we have within our agency and other agencies. The challenges our wildlife and natural places face tomorrow are great; therefore, I believe it is important that we develop the leaders of tomorrow, not just for our own agencies but for all in the natural resources field.
Brad Block, chief of interpretation, Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota: The standard answer is we do have a job to do and the interns are there to help us be successful. Also, as a representative of the National Park Service, I feel we have an obligation to mentor this new generation of park workers and park advocates. But if I can help people who may be away from home for the first time in their lives make good decisions and point them in the right direction, that’s not just good business, that’s being a good human.
SCA: Is there a particular style to your mentoring that makes it so effective – a “secret sauce?”
Deb: I don’t think there’s a secret sauce – a secret passion, maybe. I believe at the core of my being in investing in others. I enjoy mentoring people, seeing them be successful, and knowing your making even more of a difference in conservation, like a ripple effect.
Jon: We try to make people feel included and that their work matters. We spend time explaining to our interns why their work is important and how it helps us meet our mission. Often times, the interns we hire come from all portions of the United States and we recognize that moving away from family, friends, and a comfort zone can be challenging. We try our best to help them feel welcome.
Brad: To be honest, it varies from person to person. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, including SCA interns. The majority of them are on the younger side, in terms of their age and newness to the field. But if we have a work plan that complements some desire or expectation of the intern, to me it’s a win-win.
SCA: How do you spot someone’s “potential”?
Deb: What I really look for is that innate passion and do they have the potential to learn? Are they really motivated? I can teach technical skills, but what I can’t teach is drive.
Jon: To my mind, you need to work with the intern to help them figure out what “makes them tick.” In other words, help them figure out what they are truly passionate about. Many of our job-related tasks can be learned. Passion is – you either have it or you don’t.
Brad: A few years back, we had an intern who came to the monument with a deep passion for social media. [The intern said] “If you’re not on social media, you’re kind of missing the boat.” Public lands don’t normally have non-NPS people involved in their social media, mainly because of IT security, but we took the chance. Our intern was online posting educational things, responding to visitor questions and comments, and that intern opened our eyes to opportunities we really weren’t thinking about.
SCA: Clearly, you are all interested in more than productivity, but how is performance affected by mentoring?
Deb: You can give people all sorts of tasks, and someone who is competent and self-motivated will complete those tasks to the best of their abilities. But when you start mentoring someone, you boost their heart and their desire to perform even better. When they feel that intrinsic investment, they realize that the more they put in, the more they’ll get out of the experience.
Brad: From a data standpoint, mentoring normally helps out with the completion of whatever projects you have. If you’re routinely checking in, providing deadlines, touching base, it seems like those individuals are much more successful. On the emotional side, when you’re talking to them, guiding them, you become friends. It’s not just supervisor-intern, it turns into more of a nurturing opportunity.
Jon: Mentorship is a two-way street. The intern has to have a desire to be mentored and you need to invest the time necessary into the relationship in order for it to be effective. I provide general guidance to all of our interns, and training on how to navigate USAjobs, the federal hiring process, resume building, etc. Mentorship is diﬃcult to measure because the effects may not be apparent right away.
Deb: The best feeling in the world is when I hear back from a former intern – ‘Hey, I got the position!’ I got this one call, she said ‘I just wanted to let you know my supervisor told me it was your reference that got me this job.’ And I was like, ‘No, it was YOU that got you this job because you’re amazing.’ I’ve been able to work with a great pool of people through SCA.
We thank Deb, Jon, and Brad for speaking with us, for partnering with us, and for devotedly supporting the SCA members in their charge. They are excellent mentors and models for all – and, fortunately, there are hundreds like them at natural and cultural resource sites throughout the nation.
The remarks above were edited for ﬂow and brevity.