Word from the Smokies: Internship Bridges Gap Between High School and College

Word from the Smokies: Internship Bridges Gap Between High School and College

Frances Figart

By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director

Kaylie Hallcox and Morgan Kirkpatrick just finished up six weeks working in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as part of the 2021 summer high school internship program. Assisting rangers, researchers, and scientists with a variety of projects, the two recent high school graduates had an especially memorable day helping the park’s fisheries crew at Walker Camp Prong. 

“When we were told that we would be helping the fisheries staff shock fish, I thought, ‘Are they going to die, or are we going to give them brain damage?’” recalled Kirkpatrick.

“But then I realized, this is a national park, and the rangers are here to take care of this resource, so they are not going to hurt the fish,” she said. “Turned out, the fish just took a little nap so we could count them.”

Experiences in the Smokies often help summer interns like these to better determine what type of career they want to pursue when they head off to college in the fall. From left to right: Carson Johnson, Kaylie Hallcox, Grace Pepperman, Morgan Kirkpatrick, and Becca Foster. Image courtesy of NPS.
Experiences in the Smokies often help summer interns like these to better determine what type of career they want to pursue when they head off to college in the fall. From left to right: Carson Johnson, Kaylie Hallcox, Grace Pepperman, Morgan Kirkpatrick, and Becca Foster. Image courtesy of NPS.

Like many aquatic animals, fish are sensitive to changes in their watery environment. To monitor their health, NPS fisheries employees work in teams to identify, count, weigh, and measure individual fish.

A senior staffer is equipped with a backpack shocker. That person stuns the fish and passes them to netters, who then pass the fish on to other helpers carrying buckets.

“We called ourselves ‘bucketeers,’” said Hallcox. “I didn’t know that whole process even existed.”

This summer’s six interns had the opportunity to do hands-on work with divisions of the park such as fire management, historic preservation, interpretation, search and rescue, trails, vegetation management, wetlands monitoring, and wildlife. The internship is a partnership with American Conservation Experience, in which high school students are paid a stipend to work in the various facets of careers in national parks. 

“The program’s goal is to introduce youth from all backgrounds to the national park experience — not just kids that have grown up around parks, but also those from urban or rural areas who have never experienced a park before,” said Education Park Ranger Julianne Geleynse who serves as the internship coordinator for the Tennessee side of the park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park interns Kaylie Hallcox and Morgan Kirkpatrick spent time monitoring fish populations this summer. They were supporting fisheries technicians who had stunned the fish, following them with nets and buckets to collect fish for identification, counting, weighing, and measuring. Image courtesy of NPS.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park interns Kaylie Hallcox and Morgan Kirkpatrick spent time monitoring fish populations this summer. They were supporting fisheries technicians who had stunned the fish, following them with nets and buckets to collect fish for identification, counting, weighing, and measuring. Image courtesy of NPS.

“As the park itself seeks to diversify its own workforce, we also want to expose youth to a diversity of careers,” she said. “We want to eliminate barriers such as transportation that often keep people from applying for jobs in parks.”

Interns’ experiences in the Smokies often help them to better determine what type of career they want to pursue. Hallcox, who just graduated from Seymour High School, has been visiting national parks around the country most of her life and was excited for the opportunity to work in one for the summer. Kirkpatrick, a recent graduate of Cocke County High School, grew up in Parrottsville, Tennessee, and had always wanted to spend more time outdoors. 

“The NPS employees we met were anything but cookie cutter,” Kirkpatrick said. “There were so many different types of people from different backgrounds doing different jobs — many of which I didn’t even know existed — all with one thing in common: caring about species and their environment. I enjoyed learning how all the different jobs in a park benefit each other: fisheries benefits wetlands monitoring, for example.”

The internship helped Kirkpatrick decide that her major will be environmental studies when she starts at Walters State Community College in Greeneville, Tennessee, in the fall.

“My favorite day of the internship was the fish shocking day, but what I’ll remember most are all the people I’ve met. Everyone was so nice to us,” said Hallcox, who will study environmental and soil science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and hopes to someday work in a national park.

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“The value for these students is that they are getting a glimpse into the type of career options available to them in national parks,” Geleynse said. “Plus, they are learning all the aspects of work that go into managing a national park, so they are simultaneously learning to be better stewards of public lands.”

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