What Does It Take to Be a Park Ranger? Words of Wisdom from SCA Alumni (Part I)

Ranger Karen Garthwait at Arches National Park by Andrew Kuhn

Many children dream of becoming park rangers, and the career retains the allure of the romantic. But what does it take to turn that dream into action? To find out, we tracked down SCA alumni who have gone on to become successful park rangers and asked them precisely that. In this first of a two-part series, we’ve tackled the following pair of topics: choosing a college major and considering internships. Read on: our rangers’ insights might just surprise you!

Is there a “right” college major for becoming a park ranger?

The short answer is no. As the park ranger profession combines a variety of skills – from conservation to interpretation, administration to law enforcement – there are a number of different majors that, depending on your particular interests, could provide the right “fit” for a career in rangering.

Ian Harvey, a National Park Service ranger at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, majored in Conservation Ecology at the California University of Pennsylvania. Michelle Clark, a seasonal interpretative ranger at the Manassas National Battlefield Park, studied Public and Environmental Policy at the College of William and Mary. Eric Runkle, a ranger at the Montgomery Bell State Park in Tennessee, opted for a major in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism at Western Illinois University. Nancy Rogers, a 36-year park ranger for the Army Corps of Engineers, chose an interdisciplinary program in Resource Management at the University of Montana, one of the few colleges at the time to offer such a degree.


(SCA intern at Joshua Tree National Park assists with a mouse study.)

Over and above the advantages of specific majors, however, the rangers we surveyed placed a great deal of emphasis on taking advantage of the range of relationships and experiences offered at college. For Eric Runkle, it was a number of knowing friends who steered him away from computer science – his first major – and towards the parks and recreation field. For Ian Harvey, it was a helpful advisor who suggested that, based on his interests, he look into outdoor education. For Jason Cangelosi, the Volunteer Program Manager at the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, DC, a two-week orientation trip to Algonquin National Park in Canada proved to be pivotal for his future. “It changed my whole outlook,” Jason notes. “It was a big turning point for me as far as knowing that the outdoors was what I wanted to do. From there, I started working in the field as a wilderness instructor and it just built and built.”

Should I pursue an internship?

The answer is a resounding yes! Our rangers were unanimous about the value of Student Conservation Association internships in providing aspiring rangers with practical, on-the-ground experience, networking, and a host of unexpected opportunities. Sarah Spragg, a park ranger for the Bureau of Land Management in Marina, CA, landed her first SCA internship while still an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. Following this initial stint, she accepted a second, six-month stint at the Everglades National Park, only to find herself up in a helicopter monitoring the effects of fires at the end of the first week! This led to a third internship at the Army Corps of Engineers, which in turn paved the way for her first job in the Fish and Wildlife Service. “I learned everything from chainsaws to ecological monitoring and it made me a very qualified candidate for a lot of different jobs,” Sarah notes.

For Michelle Clark, two internships proved crucial for her future trajectory as an interpretive ranger. While still in college, she took on an environmental education internship for Urban Tree House, an SCA program designed to provide outdoor activities and learning for at-risk urban youth. “That was one of the most important internships I’ve ever done,” she says. “It had public speaking, it had me developing my own programs, teaching…it was basically an interpretive position, although we didn’t call it that.” Following a second summer with the Urban Tree House, Michelle decided to venture west for a four-month internship as an interpretive ranger at Hovenweep National Monument in Utah. “That was really important for me getting my position at Manassas,” Michelle notes. “I literally wouldn’t have qualified for jobs through USA Jobs and government hiring sites if I didn’t have that very specific experience beforehand.”

For Lauren Ray, a park interpreter at the Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas, her internship not only led to a job, but also to online fame. After studying environmental science at the University of the Ozarks, Lauren enrolled in a six-month SCA internship at Arches National Park as part of their interpretative program, staffing a busy visitor’s center, providing guided hikes and presentations, and providing information to visitors. “A lot of what I did was perfect job training for what I’m doing today with my career,” she notes. “By the end of the first month, I was sure that was what I wanted to do long-term.”

But that wasn’t all: while at Arches, Lauren also worked on a special project, writing song parodies about the park in order to promote its attractions to the public. One of the parodies caught on, and the staff asked her to turn it into a music video which, when subsequently posted online, gained an impressive amount of traction. The legend of the rapping ranger had been born. “That video was posted online right at the end of my internship,” Lauren recounts, “and I happened to have a job interview later that week!” Sure enough, her soon-to-be supervisor at Pacos National Historic Park had seen the video. Lauren got the job. “I feel like that was what helped me make a name for myself to become competitive in applying for future positions with the NPS,” she says. “I think that had a lot to do with me earning ‘permanent status’ [a federal hiring status] so early on in my career.”

Stay Tuned for Part Two!

We’ll be back with more from our virtual panel of rangers next week, discussing the importance of building your career through mentorships, networking, and the right résumé. In the meantime, for ten insider tips on how to navigate what can be a very intimidating federal hiring process, click here.