SCA–Student Conservation Association. The words that pops here is “conservation”–we are here for the express purpose of lending an extra four limbs, a mind and a passion to the mission of conserving our country’s natural and historical spaces. For a year, we Centennial Volunteer Ambassadors dedicate ourselves to the National Park Service, each of us on the ground in a different park; to the enlightenment of visitors, the appreciation of nature, and the management of other like efforts through volunteerism. In short, we are here for a purpose much greater than ourselves, that will stretch on (we hope) for an era beyond our lifespans.

But one of the most exciting words in my long, acronymic title (SCA CVA) is actually “student.” While it may seem as though this refers merely to our position in the world as somewhere between college classes and a “real” job, I think there’s a lot more bundled into this particular word than meets the eye, overshadowed as it is by the mission of conservation.

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This past weekend I got to go on a field trip. The Kahuku Unit of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located on the Kona side of the island–a solid hour drive from the main Visitor Center where most of us work–and it has its own crew of caretakers. As a result, it’s not terribly often that we (myself and other volunteers) have occasion to go there in a work-related capacity. But this, importantly, functioned as a short history class on the unit, an expose on its fascinating background of ranching, Hawaiian settlers and a stark illustration of this park’s struggle to conserve.

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And I was reminded that we are all students. Of the landscape, of each other, of the park service in general. As much as I am here to fulfill part of a grander mission, and for all that I feel well-suited, educated and prepared for the role, I am constantly learning simply by proximity to conservation.

In my association with the park, the greater system and its practices, I am once again a student (despite having graduated before the start of my term here).

I remember the first time I took an SCA position–back when I really was a student in the traditional, classes-taking sense of the word, and had only my summers to offer. The prospect of a year-long position was at once daunting and exciting, and I always wondered how fellow students, whose semesters started in the fall, could manage something so prolonged. But I was mistaking the word, taking it too literally, forgetting that all you need to be a student is a teacher–in this case, a unique combination of volunteer Ruth and the landscape around us.

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We spent about four hours at Kahuku, and learned about over 100 years’ worth of history. Though the park only purchased the territory in 2003, the People and Land hike that we were effectively test-driving teaches about events as far back as the 1868 lava flow that still covers the landscape and all the way up through the land’s struggle with ranch farming. We discussed the geology at work in the landscape versus the effect of the human impact–the eruptions that built the massive cinder cone Pu’u o Lokuana and the fissures of the Southwest Rift Zone, versus the flat, spongy landscape carved out by years of farming and cattle roving.

The volunteers on this field trip spanned a broad range of ages–from people in their twenties to a few in their seventies. All of us were learning, and in that moment all of us were learning, forming our own Association of students to conservation.

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So here’s to the SCA, in all the forms it takes, and its grand network of perpetual students by association.