Collaboration to Build Connection
Written by: Tai Vugia (2023 Peer Mentor)
On an overcast Monday afternoon, a group of nineteen strangers convened in the snow-covered valley of Jackson Hole. Trickling in from across the tarmac, arriving from airports sprinkled all across the country, the thirteenth cohort of the National Park Service Academy gathered together for the first time. A year ago, I had the privilege of being in their shoes, myself arriving in the Tetons full of an ambiguous excited and nervous energy. Returning as a peer mentor to help support the cohort this week, I found myself tipping back into that same energy again, preoccupied with the unknown of how this year’s cohort would evolve.
The 2023 NPS Academy was hosted again this year through a partnership of the American Conservation Experience, Grand Teton National Park, and Teton Science Schools. The latter graciously put us up at their secluded Kelly campus, a collection of rustic log cabins and lodges that when dusted in snow and nestled in the lodgepoles firmly reminded visitors that they stood with two feet in Wyoming. Here, after a bit of luggage shuffling and a chance for folks to catch their breaths after a long day of travel, the week that had sat marked on all our calendars melted into reality. Kelly campus, suddenly alive with visitors, hummed with reserved excitement and curious conversation.
As everyone gathered for dinner, the hall filled with friendly chatter, the low clouds that had clung to the valley’s walls all day finally parted; Across the valley, the many pinnacles of the Teton range emerged from their misty veil as if to join us in our introductions. And so began the week.
From my perspective, the NPS Academy program is about collaboration. Throughout the week, it took all types – facilitators, educators, rangers, and folks wearing too many hats to properly title – to keep Academy trucking forward. For all that coordination, the most exciting part of the week came down to the connections built by this year’s cohort.
Keynote speaker Director Robert Stanton kicked off the week with a welcome to the Park Service. In his speech, he touched on the caliber of people he worked alongside, an excellence that he was inspired by and ultimately reflected himself. Though they maybe lacked the same storied resume as the Director, one could already see this excellence in this year’s cohort.
Within the cohort, members ranged in their experience with conservation, some well versed in seasonal work, some coming from academic backgrounds, and still others using this opportunity to explore the field for the first time. The group’s personal histories and identities were similarly varied, and as familiarity built throughout the week and people’s personalities began showing up in force, it became clear that the strengths and passions that accompanied each person signified an exciting future, wherever they wind up. The members of this group may have been at different stages of their own journeys, but they all belonged with NPS/A this week, and with the Park Service this summer. The NPS would be lucky to someday have this group as part of its permanent fold, but whether the Park Service is where folks hope to rest their hat, the network built this week will linger.
In the auditorium with Director Stanton, one could pick out a fascinating throughline. The room was filled with people at all different stages of their own journeys, maybe headed towards separate destinations but now linked by their presence at this year’s academy. The cohort marked the newest addition to this network, with the peer mentor team only a few paces ahead of them down the trail. Other NPS/A alumni were dotted around the room, including now in positions of leadership, or having simply found their niche within an agency. Supervisors and park mentors, partnered with this program for multiple years, illustrated career positions members of the cohort might one day step into. Director Stanton marked the last link present in the room, a former director of the entire Park Service who got his start as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park. This room rippled with the ongoing legacy of the NPS Academy program.
Throughout the week, the cohort met with folks from the different park divisions. Across a swath of science, trade, and public-oriented roles, it became clear that it took all kinds of people to manage a park. While just about any skill set could find its niche in the park, conversations, turning to the people serving in these positions, emphasized that diversity in path, experience, and identity only strengthen the workforce that wears the arrowhead. Effective land management is a team sport and, as the week progressed, we’d found a group I’d want playing for the green and gray.
Days went by in a blur. They were sprinkled with snowshoe hikes, a sleigh ride through the elk refuge, and trip into Jackson. We were graced by sunshine and mountain views as the group moved through activities to get folks oriented and prepared for their upcoming seasons. On the clock and in downtime, it was a joy to see the cohort come together. The slight timidness of the week’s start had burned away. The program’s days were long, but the atmosphere was positive and evenings often wrapped with folks squeezing in a bit more social time before calling it a night. My early concerns of how the cohort might come together felt unfounded; despite the uncertainties of the upcoming season, the group was ready to tackle it together.
In the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, we brought the week to a close. In a bittersweet ceremony, members of the cohort voiced what they’d be taking with them from this week in Wyoming, tying a ribbon on the week and looking to the future. The past few days had been a distillation of the seasonal rhythm – a set of goodbyes that begin at hello, a memorable prolonged adjourning. Yet it went the other way too, with Academy being an exciting beginning as the preamble to a season, maybe to a career or a chapter of one’s life, or just a curious detour. In a week, nineteen total strangers grew into a familiar cohort. Re-dispersing across the country, heading to Acadia and Golden Gate, Rocky and Glacier, Rainier and Yellowstone, and maybe a few people sticking around for a summer at the Tetons, the members of NPS/A’s thirteenth cohort move forward individually but also as part of something bigger. Continuing onward, embodying the themes of connection, diversity, and legacy that lie at the core of this program, this group will venture out with momentum. They have their peers, leadership, NPS/A alumni, and greater NPS/A network being right there in their corner. While the week in the Tetons has wrapped, the cohort has an exciting summer season is on the horizon.