Gator Career Chat: National and State Parks, Environmental Protection, and Conservation (workshop recap + recording)

On Thursday, February 22, 2024 the Career Connections Center hosted a panel presentation featuring professionals with careers in federal and state parks, environmental protection, and conversation, including UF alumni in these roles. Attendees gained valuable insights into diverse and rewarding opportunities within these fields as panelists shared their experiences and career trajectories and offered advice to UF students and alumni aspiring to make a positive impact on our natural world.

Watch workshop recording:

Workshop Summary:

Environmental Protection Career Paths
The panelists shared their educational backgrounds and career paths in environmental protection and conservation. Erin focused on environmental education and fisheries, currently working as an education and interpretive park ranger at Grand Teton National Park. Belen studied journalism and mass communications, with a specialization in social media, and worked in various roles with the National Park Service. Rachel graduated with degrees in economics, sustainability studies, and urban planning, currently serving as a senior campus planner at the University of Florida. Eva graduated in 2020 and started her career through an internship at a tropical aquaculture laboratory, now working with marine and freshwater species.

Environmental Activism and Career Paths
Eva shared her passion for environmental activism and how it inspired her to pursue a career in the field. Rachel discussed her interest in sustainable development and urban planning, highlighting the importance of balancing resource preservation with population growth. Erin emphasized her love for environmental education and the role it played in shaping her career path. The team then shifted their discussion to the most valuable skills and knowledge gained from their educational experiences. Belen emphasized the importance of practical skills such as photography, writing, video editing, and analytics, and suggested that a certificate in environmental studies would have been beneficial.

Communication, Resilience, and Government Experience
Belen emphasized the importance of hard skills in any field, including communication. Eva shared her experiences working in the government sector, highlighting the need for good communication skills and the ability to navigate complex rules and regulations. She also noted the challenges of dealing with people who are unaware of the impact of their actions on the environment. Rachel stressed the value of resilience, which she learned in college, and how it can help in bouncing back from setbacks and empowering team members. Erin agreed with the points raised by Eva and Rachel, highlighting the importance of conflict management skills when dealing with a diverse group of people.

Skills Development and Initiative Taking
Erin emphasized the importance of basic skill sets such as professional email writing and meeting leadership, as well as the value of taking initiative to address problems. She shared her experience working with college students and stressed the need for confidence and skill sets to tackle challenges independently. David then opened a discussion about other ways to gain skills, including certifications, training, and development opportunities. He also asked for any organizations, publications, or resources that they found helpful. Belen shared her personal approach of taking every opportunity to learn in her role at the Park Service, including firefighting training, ride-alongs with law enforcement, and wildlife counting. She also expressed a wish for a stronger educational background in environmental sciences.

Opportunities, Credibility, and Interpersonal Skills
The discussion centered around the importance of taking any opportunity that comes one’s way, regardless of personal interest, as it contributes to building a strong resume and developing skills like adaptability and hard work. Eva stressed the significance of communication and teamwork in the professional world. Rachel suggested considering accreditation from the American Institute of Certified Planners, noting that it provides a level of credibility and indicates adherence to ethical standards. She also recommended seeking professional development opportunities such as leadership training. Erin underscored the value of interpersonal skills in the workplace, pointing out that effective communication and interaction with people are still crucial despite the increasing role of technology.

Job Hunting and Emerging Trends
Erin shared her experience with job hunting resources such as the Texas A. & M. Job board and the North American Association for Environmental Education job board. She also mentioned her interest in pursuing a career in the guiding field and the physical resources she would need. Gabby then asked about emerging trends or factors impacting those looking to move into these kinds of roles or areas. Rachel highlighted the trend of climate change mitigation and adaptation in the field of urban planning, while Eva discussed the trend of residential development and the need for regulatory jobs in Florida’s wetland and surface water management. Erin concluded by noting the biggest challenge for seasonal jobs in the Western US is housing.

National Parks Staffing and Volunteer Challenges
Erin emphasized the challenges faced by national parks staff due to high housing costs and low wages, which often leads to understaffing. She also discussed the need for innovative methods to engage students in place-based learning in a post-Covid world. The discussion then shifted to volunteer opportunities within the park system, with Belen and Erin noting the importance of volunteers in the park service. Erin suggested reaching out to the volunteer and park coordinator for specific parks to inquire about volunteering, as this could facilitate opportunities related to your skillset or expertise. Eva, however, noted that her state office does not offer many volunteering opportunities, but has many internship opportunities instead.

Career Paths and Internships
Eva discussed the availability of internships in her field, emphasizing the flexibility and benefits these positions offer. Rachel shared her role in overseeing and updating the campus master plan, including aspects such as building interactions and public health and safety. David addressed questions about the types of academic backgrounds suitable for these career paths. Erin provided her perspective, sharing her journey of having different academic backgrounds and experiences, including marine science, political science, and natural resource conservation. Erin highlighted the importance of her experiences in various roles and internships, as they helped her identify her interests and develop a range of skills.

Skills, Adaptability, and Career Paths
The discussion revolved around the importance of skills and adaptability over academic background in pursuing a career in certain fields. Erin highlighted the need for flexibility and a willingness to learn, regardless of major, with an emphasis on the skills sought by NPS in their interpretive and education rangers. Belen shared her personal experience of nearly securing a job at Audubon for the Rockies due to her skills, despite not having a passion for birds. She advised learning communications and marketing skills, and encouraged building these skills through involvement in advocacy. David brought attention to the variety of academic backgrounds present in the group, inquiring about their suitability for a career in their respective fields. Eva expressed her belief that an undergraduate degree only takes one so far, emphasizing the importance of using existing knowledge and communication skills to advance in a career. Rachel echoed these sentiments, highlighting the influence of a passion for people and community over a specific degree in urban planning.

Final Pieces of Advice
Gabby opened the floor for additional insights or advice from the panelists. Belen shared her experience navigating USA Jobs and suggested using the Public Land Corps to gain points and that would help in the application process. Erin echoed Belen’s sentiments and stressed the importance of meticulously documenting all experiences on a resume. She also highlighted the complexities of the USA Jobs system, including the need to understand different hiring authorities. Rachel, Eva, and Erin emphasized the value of starting at entry-level positions in the public sector, even for those with advanced degrees or experience. They suggested that these positions provide valuable learning experiences and highlighted the benefits of being part of a team. They also recommended not being afraid of taking seasonal jobs as a way to gain experience and figure out career preferences.
By Gabby Diaz-Portalatin
Gabby Diaz-Portalatin Career Pathways Coach