Reflecting on an experience that is not finished yet is difficult to say the least. To be 58.33% done with something means that there is still much to be learned. But, we can look at the past and see what we want to happen with the future. Unfortunately, reflecting means honesty. Brutally honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being honest with myself, and whatever poor person who decides to read the diary-like entry about my past seven months at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Orientation to being a Student Conservation Association Centennial Volunteer Ambassador was fun. Half of us flew to Las Vegas and met nearly forty of our cohorts who would be working across the country. At first, it was as awkward as that sexually harassment talk you have when you first go to college. You don’t even know the people sitting next to you, and yet you are talking about the ups, downs and murky underbelly of the red tape that surrounds making things look squeaky clean in the public lands. But by day two or three of the six days of orientation, you’re all old friends already and enjoying your one night off together by being young and carefree.
Then orientation is over, and we are split apart to our individual parks, starting all over again. For my part, the first month was horrendous. I was homesick, didn’t have my uniform yet, nor access to government computers, and I (a 22-year-old woman) was learning how to live with an 18-year-old boy in government housing. I hadn’t had to deal with that since shared housing in college my junior year. But, like all things, those eventually passed.
I got my computer access card. I can’t say that I was thrilled to be spending more time on a computer, but at least it gave me a modicum of freedom. My uniform arrived, so I wasn’t doing laundry every other day (or at least faking it with some febreeze). My partner and I established some house rules – though those continued to be an issue, everyone has roommates and everyone has those issues. Part of growing up is learning how to deal with adverse roommates. I started to meet more people in the park, and began to lean the dynamics that went along with the bureaucracy of being a partner working within the confines of the National Park Service.
Best of all, I started to gain more freedom. Freedom to design my own schedule, work my own events, to go to the visitor center, to rove and explore the park and meet the people who visited it. Best of all I knew all my favorite haunts in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. For the first couple months in the summer, I didn’t have internet. I spent my time outside of work running the trails, taking myself out to dinner at the (delicious) locally owned restaurants. Best of all, I went to the beach and biked along Lakeview drive, then went for a swim and Lake Michigan, and dried off sitting on the beach, sketching the sunset.
The job would eventually get busy, with a series of large anniversary events in August and September. Personally, I relished in the opportunity to have my entire day filled running errands, creating maps, and setting up tents, benches and stages. I was able to prove how hard I could work, and consequently was given even more leash to do as I wished. I was even allowed to design and lead my own tour. Winter has slowed down the activities, just as all parks have a slow season. And though it has kept me to my desk more, it has also opened opportunities doing things such as Wildland Fire Training, and working with Urban Waters partnerships. I am finding ways to keep myself busy by building the Park’s relationship with the community, while also building my resume and an employee.
That’s what being an SCA intern is. It is a frustratingly slow process that only working with the government can offer, filled with people who are just counting down the days to retirement and angry customers who don’t understand why they can’t go in an unstable area of the park. But it is also working with people who have learned more from their experiences than you can imagine, who are more than willing to take you out to lunch and show you a thing or two, and being able to take part in events and learning opportunities that will benefit and amaze you for years to come.