Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Internships: The Value of Knowing What You Don't Want to Do

A few weeks ago I found myself arguing with my mom about the way I spent my summer more than ten years ago now. It was May 1996 and I was just finishing my freshman year of college at Colorado State University. I chose to attend CSU not only because it had the best program for what I thought I wanted to do (natural resources and tourism), but also because it was not too far from my home town--two hours, which is close in Colorado distance. I remember that beginning in fifth grade I wanted to become a National Park Ranger. It wasn't my affinity for Yogi Bear that inspired me, but a love instilled in me from a childhood of camping, traveling, and learning to enjoy the wonder of natural and human history. I was so certain that I wanted to become a park ranger that I spent much of my early life preparing for my future career. My first job was even working as a tour guide in a cave. During my freshman year of college when everyone I knew was either undeclared or changing majors weekly, I declared my major in the Natural Resource Department upon my first visit to campus.

When spring arrived and I had completed my first year, it was time for me to think about leaving the dorms, returning home, and taking a summer job to earn a few bucks. But one day I happened to stop by the career center in the student center. I don't know why or how I ended up there now, but I found myself leafing through all of the various summer jobs. There I found a listing for an internship with the Student Conservation Association as an interpretation ranger at Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, MA. (Having grown up in the West, I really wanted to experience the East Coast and the history of New England which was totally alien to me). I knew immediately what I wanted to do. Thoughtless of what my parents wanted of me, I decided to apply for the unpaid position. I was soon accepted and somehow, after much conflict and hurt feelings, I finally got to Massachusetts.

It is hard for me to now measure everything that I learned that summer. All I know was that it was a completely transformative experience. I learned that I loved American History--so much that when I returned I added it as a second major. I explored New England extensively. I met wonderful friends, lived in a haunted house, drank my body weight in Sam Adams Ale, skinny dipped in Walden Pond, and got the first glimpse of what I wanted my future to be like. When I returned to CSU the following year, I was even more charged up for a life in the National Parks. After my sophomore year, I accepted a position as an intern at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico. It was another life-changing summer for me, but in a very different way. Not only did I gain a great deal of life experience, but I also got the first negative glimpse of life as a park ranger. I lived in a trailer in a remote desert. It was 80 miles to the nearest town to buy groceries. I met people who had worked in, what I thought was my dream job, for twenty to thirty years. Many of them never left the park; they chose never to marry or remained estranged from their spouses. There was even a suicide from loneliness. Now, while that was a unique experience only to me, it made me face the facts of my chosen career path. Things weren't always going to be camping and hiking. There would be a host of obstacles that I would have to overcome, or simply learn to cope with. By the end of that summer, my commitment to being a park ranger was seriously shaken. However, I did have the opportunity to work in the park museum. I saw how exhibits were made, objects were cared for, and stories were interpreted. I discovered a new love of museums and learned that I could be in a field that allowed me to work with artifacts, history, and people. I left New Mexico that fall with an altered vision of my future, but one that I have been pursuing with great satisfaction for nearly ten years since.

So, back to the argument with my mom. It came out recently that she (and with very good reason) absolutely did not want me to go to Massachusetts that first year. But, my dad interceded on my behalf and helped me follow my dream (maybe divorce can have a silver lining). Although I might have pursued a somewhat selfish cause, I can't imagine my life now if I had not made those important decisions. They not only helped me find the path to my present career, but in ways even unclear to me still, shaped the person I am today. I continued to pursue internships after those first years. Some were great successes and I learned what I could achieve. One was a terrible failure, and I tested the limits of my capabilities. But in all instances I personally grew. And, every internship I took was unpaid. I did get a small living stipend from the NPS, but it also came with a Ramen cookbook. Yet, for me, the value of experience far outweighed the minimal financial gain of a summer time job. It built my resume and prepared me to accept my first official museum job. It also gave me a competitive edge that managing a Taco Bell, no matter how much more lucrative at the time, could never have offered.

Any thoughts on internships? Had a valuable experience or wasted your time? I welcome your stories.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I know its bin a couple of years since you wrote this, but I do want to comment. I am a senior in college and since last May I have been the Curriculum Intern at a museum near my school. I have learned so much about myself and want I want to do from this experience. I am glad that I am doing this internship and it has taught me a lot. Like how to run a field trip to how to create a podcast tour. (Which is what I am currently doing). I also think that my unpaid internship will help me when I apply to graduate school in a year. I wouldn't take that back for anything.