Do You Boo: An NPS Academy March Experience Reflection
Written by: Deja Charles and Evan Williams
Day 0 – Prep for Leadership
Do you boo, an odd but endearing catchphrase, was the rallying cry both participants and leaders alike adopted during their NPS Academy (NPS/A) 2022 experience as it was held IN PERSON at Grand Teton National Park. Coming off a year of being digitally connected but socially distant, a chance to interact with people face to face felt both antiquated and brand new, all at the same time. We had planned for each day to start with a facilitator framing how the day would proceed and highlighting the theme that would be present throughout the day’s sessions and activities. Unfortunately, as much as we discussed and outlined, there was one thing that nobody could have planned for or anticipated. The elephant that was in the room, the cat that had everybody’s tongue, and the frog that was stuck in all of our throats, was one simple question, “are we ready for this?”
Day 1 – Who Are You?
As participants began to arrive at the airport, a slow but steady buzz began to fill the air. Finally putting pictures to faces, members chatted with one another apprehensively at first, as if they were distant cousins they haven’t seen since they were little. As conversations began to flow from their mouths and butterflies began to fly out from their stomachs, members commented how they were excited for the upcoming week and wondered what surprises NPS/A would have in store. Little did they know, NPS/A would bring much more than they ever could have expected.
Once present on campus, the rest of the day would proceed the following way;
- Members received their goody bags full of NPS/A swag (Yay)
- Members shown to their rooms and met their roommates for the first time (Yikes)
- Members were led to the dining commons to eat till they were full (Yum)
After dinner, members were led to their first NPS/A session where they were welcomed by staff and began to learn the grounding tenets that drove the NPS/A program: Connection, Diversity, and Legacy.
Day 2 – The Bonds That Bind Us
Theme: Connections Between People and Place
The first official day of NPS/A would start with the cohort collectively deciding how they would communicate with one another through an activity known as the Arrowhead Agreement. For this activity, we adapted the meanings of each arrowhead image to express a want or need of the academy members to be successful for the week. With that in mind, the mountain represents what academy members saw on the horizon and what goals they wanted to set for themselves. Members responded saying they wanted community, the change to learn, and the opportunity to network throughout the week. The Sequoia tree would represent the support members would want to see from facilitators in various forms. Members responded by saying they wanted to highlight the importance of words of encouragement, communication, and respect amongst one another. This first session would go through each of the symbols within the arrowhead and what it meant for the group for the week and beyond.
Upon hearing their thoughts, the peer mentors and facilitators alike were confident this group would easily accomplish these goals. As the day would continue on, participants were given the chance to hear from previous NPS director Bob Stanton where he reminded each and every one of them how special a place could be to someone and how it is up to us at the NPS to keep those places and their stories safe for future generations.This idea would come full circle later on as the cohort was tasked to look inward and draw their own connections to the place through a medium of their choice.
Day 3 – Diversity: The Art of Thinking Independently Together
By the third day, things had begun to change in the Tetons. As connections began to happen organically, as laughs were shared over bowls of milk & cereal, and as space was held and moments created to share openly and honestly, what we feared earlier was surely happening now. We had begun to like this cohort way TOO much, which meant that a tearful goodbye was almost guaranteed in the future.
On this day, the cohort unwrapped the term diversity and what that looks like within the National Park Service. To start that conversation off, a panel discussion was conducted with NPS/A alumni as they each answered questions about their experiences. Participants would later come to say that as they sat and watched each panel member answer a question, they saw themselves up on that panel as well. Made up of different backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, gender identities, and socioeconomic statuses, the panel was a beautiful reflection of what the National Park Service should look like.Whatever they thought was holding them back, the panel members had been in your shoes, and were standing there today to tell them that they are right where they need to be. This is their first step for the rest of their lives, and they should know that they are not taking that step alone, but together with everyone else. One big take away was that while they were in search of their own paths, spoiler alert, they were already on it!
Day 4 – Legacy: Shoulders to Stand Upon
For the second to last day of the program, participants would see themselves facing one of their biggest challenges of the week: Public speaking 0_0
But that would come later on. Before that would occur, Academy members would get the opportunity to hear from different rangers as they were told about the various positions they each had and what their jobs entailed. The cohort was exposed to a variety of routes people have taken whether they were NPS/A alumni and/or current park rangers. Firefighters, trail maintenance, search and rescue, you name it! What the participants soon came to realize was that while each ranger came from a different background, they were still connected by their similar wants, goals, and needs. The participants were given a glimpse at what their future jobs could be and gained some wise words along the way.
Academy members were then led to a meet and greet held in the visitor center where they were able to network with high profile park staff members and were given the opportunity to potentially meet their summer internship supervisor(s) for the first time. The Academy members had no problem mixing and mingling with the various park rangers as they talked about what they hoped to achieve during their summer internship, what they were excited to learn about, and what brought them to NPS/A in the first place. Much like a parent watching their child mature, the facilitators reminisced about the early days they had spent together and commented how the Academy members grew up so fast.
The day was concluded by watching the sun set on not only their experiences from the week but the Tetons as well. As we reflected on our time spent together, there were thank yous, good byes, see you soons, I love you’s, and so much more. In the beginning of the week they looked at each other like strangers. Through shared laughter and experiences, that then transformed into acquaintances, then close friends, and finally a community.
Day 5 – Hello/Goodbye
Waking up on this day, though it was not said out loud, everybody felt different. Just as quickly as we had all come together, the time had come for a bittersweet goodbye and for us to travel back to our homes. Taking a moment to reflect back on our own week, as mentors we would cherish the hard laughs that were had, the impromptu snowball fights that broke out, and the memories that will last over a lifetime. To put it bluntly, being a peer mentor was a weird experience. When we were asked to come back to NPS/A the following thoughts had gone through our minds.
Are they sure this email wasn’t supposed to go to somebody else? “Cause last time I checked…”
- Neither one of us has been to an NPS/A orientation in person.
- This was our first time in the Tetons. And with that being said, what even is a Teton?
- Why me? Out of everybody whom they could have asked, what can I bring to the table?
What we were suffering from was Imposter Syndrome, the act of doubting our own abilities and feeling like a fraud. What we soon came to realize over the course of the week was that while we initially came there to give knowledge, advice, and words of encouragement to the peer members, we actually received so much more back from them in return. Members had shared with us how monumentally this week had changed their lives. Comments were made about how members had finally found their people, had rediscovered their lost voice from long ago, and how they were confident that they were walking in the right direction. Our presence there had played a part in each of their lives, and that we have to accept we actually may know what we are doing. By coming in with open minds and hearts, we were able to create bonds with not only the members but with everybody we had come into contact with.
Something that anyone should know when considering being involved with the NPS Academy program, is that it is truly a gift that keeps on giving. If you care about nature or the outdoors, have ever felt like a minority or an outsider, or have been looking for your calling or your people, then the Academy is a great opportunity to find what you have been missing. Even if you do not find your calling within the week, which lets be honest, is quite a hard thing to do, the experience itself helps guide you in the direction you were meant to go. The mentorship, guidance, community, networking, and career development are priceless and even if you never end up working in a national park, you will have gained so much more than a job. You will have gained an everlasting community.