Posted by: Kirsten | Monday, 16 July 2007

The Student Conservation Association

If you happened to glance at the [About] tab on this site you may have noticed a passing reference to the SCA or Student Conservation Association.  So what is it?  Without going on for an hour or more of typing (which I could easily do on this subject), let me just say that my experience with SCA has literally changed my life and my outlook on the world.

Here’s the official word from SCA’s own website:

SCA is a nationwide force of high school and college-age volunteers who are committed to protecting and preserving the environment. We are conservation in action.

Through internships, conservation jobs and crew experiences, SCA members are rising to meet environmental challenges while gaining real, hands-on field experience. They complete projects in every conservation discipline – from archaeology to zoology – and everything in between.

I first learned about SCA as a college senior.  Here I was about to graduate, knowing I probably didn’t want to start graduate school right away, and not really having a job lined up that would get me out of “college-town”. A friend happened to have a catalog of summer job opportunities with SCA and left it sitting in the common area at the office where I worked part-time.  After thumbing through it several times, I finally thought — why not? They promised the opportunity to see parts of the country I had never seen before, and that definitely interested me.  They paid a whopping $35 per week to help with meals and your housing was covered by the park that hired you for a 12-week stint. 

I sent in my application and was called fairly soon about working at a National Park from June through August.  How exciting —  I couldn’t believe it!  The location?  Death Valley… yikes! :-p  One hundred twenty degrees in the shade?!  No thanks… 

I couldn’t believe it, I was turning down an opportunity to work alongside real park rangers and benefit from hundreds if not thousands of California girls driving convertibles and stopping by the Visitor Center main desk to ask silly questions like “What do you do for fun around here?” Was I a total idiot, or what?  Would they even offer me another position in another park?  I rolled the dice, and it paid off. 

The next park to call me was Grand Canyon. They needed someone with audiovisual equipment experience and a background in geology — the planets were aligned and I was on my way.  My car made it to North Carolina where it promptly broke down and the spending limit on my Texaco credit card (the only one I had) wasn’t enough to get the car fixed.  Without a second thought, I left my car parked in Durham and hopped on the next Trailways bus to Flagstaff, Arizona.  Three days later I found myself slowly heading to the canyon with great anticipation on the once-per-day bus to the park. 

I hadn’t been west of the state of Texas before this trip and was shocked to see TREES as we got closer and closer to the Canyon. It hadn’t occured to me that I was essentially witnessing an inverse mountain, with desert at the bottom of the canyon and jolly green giant-sized pine trees at each rim. We entered the park and still we were climbing in elevation.  Where did they put this canyon anyway? Finally the trees parted as the bus slowly curved to the left and I suddenly found my lower jaw sitting in my lap.  Holy cannoli! 

Several semesters of sedimentary geology and biogeography courses suddenly came rushing back into my head and all those overhead transparencies and slide shows and textbook photos and research papers suddenly made sense.  Half a billion years of history right there. Rattlesnakes to raptors, tarantulas to towhees, bighorn sheep to butterflies, and every biodiversity zone inbetween were all right there in front of me. How can ANYONE get a college degree in earth sciences without having visited a place like this?

The job was absolutely great — even when I was out picking up trash in front of the Visitor Center and my college advisor drove up (totally unexpectedly) and shouted through the window of his pickup truck, “Putting your degree to good use I see!” Splitting wood, conducting visitor programs, photographing park events, all of it was wonderful because every morning I could get up, find a viewpoint, and have the entire canyon all to myself.

The people were equally outstanding. Park employees took me to see just about all the nearby (and not so nearby) National Parks and Monuments, as well as on river rafting trips, exploring caves, and climbing 12,000-foot mountains. Twenty years later, I still keep in touch with some of my former coworkers.

If I had only known about SCA opportunities in high school! Well, for any homeschool families out there still reading this, be sure to check out the SCA website,, because there are plenty of opportunities for high-school-aged kids to be an SCA National Crew Member.  Check it out — you won’t regret it!

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