This Isn’t the Tetons, and That’s Okay


SCA Alumni Council Member Jeremy Taitano Returns to NPS Academy

Two years ago, I was an SCA NPS Academy member in the Grand Tetons. Thirty other college students and I had made the trip out to the Teton Science School in Wyoming to go through a week-long orientation, before we would all go on to serve in SCA internship positions with the National Park Service that summer. During our orientation, we learned about the National Park Service’s mission to preserve natural resources for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations, we learned about one another, and we learned about ourselves. At the time, it was all that I could have asked for. To learn about these magnificent values in one of the most idyllic landscapes in the world was something that could never be matched, until it was: in the heart of New York City.

Every year since 2011, SCA and the National Park Service have teamed up to host National Park Service Academy programs all around the country. Through NPS Academy, SCA brings together diverse groups of college students to learn about career paths in the National Park Service. Before starting their summer internships across the country, NPS Academy members spend a week together at a national park site, where they learn about the resource, attend trainings with NPS staff, and work together to come up with innovative solutions to real issues facing the park. Members then present these solutions to park superintendents and other staff during a closing ceremony at the end of the week.

SCA NPS Academy take a ranger-led tour of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in NYCSCA NPS Academy members on a ranger-led tour of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in NYC

This year, I had the pleasure of helping to facilitate SCA’s NPS Academy orientation in New York City – based at the Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, right in downtown Manhattan. This orientation brought together 20 interns from the New York City region and beyond. Federal Hall was our home base throughout the week, as we toured the constellation of sites that make up the National Parks of New York Harbor.

One of the first sites we visited, the African Burial Ground National Monument, tells a tale of great triumph and great sadness: a burial ground in Lower Manhattan, lost to history since the 1700s, that was rediscovered and given recognition after hundreds of years of silence – thanks to community activism. Most of the NPS Academy members had never visited the site before, and many never knew it existed. Being in this space brought to mind something that the former director of the National Park Service, Bob Stanton, said during a speech to me and my fellow NPS Academy members in 2014: “We preserve the sites of our nation’s saddest stories not to wallow in despair, but to marvel at our resilience as a nation standing resolute in the face of adversity.”

SCA NPS Academy pause for reflection at the African Burial Ground in NYC
A moment of introspection at the African Burial Ground

Geovanni Caldero, who will be an SCA crew leader this summer for Vamos Verde, a program aiming to bring Latino youth to conservation service, spoke to me about the importance of choice in the development of these sites. “It is all about what we choose to make a part of history – we know of historical icons only because we have made a choice to remember them.”

The next day, we took a quick 15-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan to Governors Island National Monument, a beautiful green gem providing city dwellers with an island reprieve from concrete in the middle of New York Harbor.  There, we had the honor of sitting down with the Superintendent Patti Reilly, whose excitement about the next generation of stewards, storytellers, and conservation leaders was infectious. She remarked on the diversity of our group, including our diversity of educational backgrounds. With a diverse array of challenges facing our parks and our people – such as sea level rise, social relevancy, and historical preservation – Superintendent Reilly pointed out that it will take a diverse group of individuals to rise to those challenges.

Another ferry, from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, brought us to Ellis Island. Ellis showcases the courage of the 12 million immigrants who passed through the customs building on the island into the United States from 1892 to 1954. Ellis Island has a dilemma to face that it shares with many other Park Service units. The buildings and the stories they hold inspire millions of visitors each year, but as we found on our behind-the-scenes Hard Hat Tour, these buildings are old and fragile, and balancing visitor interaction with preservation of the resource can be difficult.

SCA NPS Academy members tour Ellis Island buildings in NYCSCA NPS Academy members take a hard hat tour of hospital buildings on Ellis Island

Even more difficult than the preservation choices facing the park are the challenges of telling stories of immigration conditions that don’t always reflect well on the history of our country. But as Nigel Fields, Chief Interpretive Ranger at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and facilitator of our academy, told us, “Sometimes we don’t want to create a safe space, sometimes we want to create a brave space, so that we can move forward with courage.” I believe Ellis Island is a beautiful embodiment of that bravery, where hard but important stories are told.

This orientation week was the first step to encourage NPS Academy members to think about the challenges that face these wonderful places, and how they will work to address them through their summer internship positions with SCA. But the experience reminded me of something that was said during my first academy in the Grand Tetons. Josh Kleyman, program director of the Teton Science Schools at the time, dared us to move forward. He told us that while the academy space might be beautiful, surrounding us with so many likeminded individuals, “we can’t stay here, because there is so much work to be done.” He urged us to take our inspiration and find the bravery to move ahead to work for the future.

SCA NPS Academy showcase their work in NYC

SCA NPS Academy members share their work with National Park superintendents in NYC

The values of stewardship that SCA and the National Park Service work toward transcend geographic boundaries. During my first NPS Academy experience in 2014, a respected mentor of mine, Ranger Millie Jimenez, shared the moment she knew she wanted to dedicate herself to this work. During her own time in SCA’s NPS Academy, Ranger Millie attended a ranger-led interpretive tour in the Great Smokey Mountains. When the interpretative ranger was asked what she loved most about her job, she responded: “I protect people’s heart home places.” The beauty of that statement really shows through in New York City’s national parks, which are right here in the middle of people’s lives, where they grow, learn, laugh, and love.

To me, the National Park Service Centennial slogan of “Find Your Park” originally brought to mind jumping up and making the trek to Wyoming for the summer in order to find that heart home place — but finding your park doesn’t have to mean that. Perhaps you live in New York City, and find solace on Governors Island, are moved to tears by the African Burial Ground and Ellis Island, or enjoy days of birding at Jamaica Bay. It isn’t Acadia, the Grand Tetons, or Yellowstone, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s incredible. So this centennial year, find your park. Find your heart home places. No matter where those might be, SCA NPS Academy members will be working together, near and far, to guarantee that those places stay protected and stay magnificent.

NPS Academy alums reunited

SCA NPS Academy alums reunite (author Jeremy Taitano on far right)