When I and my fellow SCAs took up the mantle of the CVA intern, we did it for lots of reasons. We did it because we believe in the National Park Service; we did it because we want to do our part to perpetuate the protection and stewardship of our country’s natural and historical landmarks; we did it because we wanted to travel somewhere new, or to protect and connect more with a place we’ve known for years. We also did it to learn.

Many of us, myself included, are young and still finding our way in the world of careers and bills and “real” life. I, myself, took this position a meager month and a half after graduating college, and as much as I value the grand cause and the simple fortune of being in a national park, I wanted to be a CVA as much for what I would learn, and how I could further my own career path, as for what I could do in the park (yes, these are the less glamorous reasons). And this past week I was reminded more than ever how lucky I am to have gained this position, and what incredibly valuable lessons we all learn by working in the National Park Service.

My “centor” (centennial mentor; she hates to be called “boss”) went on annual leave last week. Needless to say, her position in the park is very important and quite singular—she makes up pretty much the entire PR division, and is first point of contact for press and media in the park. So we couldn’t exactly leave her chair empty for a week (literally or figuratively). My assumption was that the Chief of Interp might take over her duties, or that they might be shared amongst other management personnel. But no; her desk was to be manned by none other than yours truly.

Of course I was flattered and grateful for the opportunity, but the prospect of suddenly being first point of contact (FPC) for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was more than a little daunting, especially for a fresh-from-school intern with little to no professional experience. My job was little more than answering the phone, responding to emails, sending out press kits and processing film permits (more like a secretary than what Jessica actually does), but I was walking on egg-shells nonetheless.

Now that I’m on the other side of things, I can more clearly look back at how valuable the experience was. I was shocked by how trying my seemingly simple list of responsibilities could be! It has reminded me of the valuable skills we will all take with us when the day comes that we leave our parks.

Let’s start with answering the phone. Seems pretty easy, right? When it rings, you pick it up and have a conversation. But then people ask questions you don’t know how to answer, or want permission for things that you aren’t away of the procedure for. And heaven forbid you miss a call and have to deal with the answering machine! An angry little red light beeps incessantly until you brave the “messages” button and sit there for an unspecified length of time listen to still more questions and requests. Then the worst bit: you have to find all the answers and call them back! Am I the only one with phone anxiety?

But at the very least, a week of knowing the phone wouldn’t get answered unless I picked it up was great training, and I now posses the skill (yes, I consider it a practicable skill) of not only being brave enough to pick up the phone and listen to the messages, but also know how to speak professionally, answer questions and check procedures and, most importantly, how to say “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you on that.”

Next up: emails. After the phone these seem like a walk in the park at first glance. But the going in cyberspace is even more treacherous! You don’t have the cover of speaking candidly, or the “I’ll get back to you” response because the conversation isn’t happening in real time. That being said, people expect the same degree of rapid-response time with email that they do with a phone message. So the big takeaway here was this: Always have your email open and refresh every 20 minutes; also never forget to glance over your emails at least twice for spelling or informational errors!

Related to constantly checking emails, the most important thing about being left as FPC was that I was entirely self-accountable–and ultimately, we CVAs largely have to operate under our own initiative. There’s often no one around to check work, make sure we send out accurate information and file it away properly, or remind us to get things done in a timely manner. This isn’t school. I know for most of us all of that seems like a series of no-brainers—of course we triple check our information and accomplish tasks ASAP! But when it comes down to it, I was a little unprepared for the experience. After all, in college my only deadline was class in the morning, and as long as I presented my argument persuasively it didn’t matter if my facts were a little fudged (I was an arts and humanities student). So this extra level of responsibility was incredibly eye-opening and valuable.

This, in my opinion, applies to every aspect of what SCA interns do at their respective parks, from organizing a new volunteer initiative to posting regular and engaging things on the park’s social media pages. Most of what we talk about is community engagement and environmental protection, possibly a future job with NPS, and what not to do in uniform. Sometimes we forget how important it is to just gain professional experience, and learn to dot all our “i”s and cross every single “t.” As much as we care about the big picture—the Centennial, the volunteer programs and the grand adventure of working in a national park—it’s some of the little mundanities that will really stay with us as skills for the next decade of our lives, and that make the parks run smoothly, able to continue their mission.

So this blog entry wasn’t about a program or an event; it didn’t have exciting pictures either. But this is the other side of what it means to work with NPS as a CVA intern. We should all be aware that the park has a network of “desk jobs” behind the charisma of the Interpretation rangers and the rugged tools and gloves of the volunteers. I was reminded of what it really takes to keep a park running, the management and the behind-the-scenes mundanities that require more work than you think. I’m more impressed than ever with what Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—and all of the National Park Service—accomplishes and handles on a daily basis, and I already feel more prepared for professional life!