Kathleen Kelly smiles into the camera while wearing her park ranger uniform.

News & Features

Return of the park ranger

Friday, December 7, 2018

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the first step of Kathleen Kelly’s journey of 56,932 miles took place at Northeastern Illinois University.

“I had a little hole in my schedule, so I took a class called Environment and Behavior,” said Kelly, who grew up on Chicago’s North Side. “I realized, ‘Oh, you can study the environment and you don’t have to be a biologist or a chemist or a geologist.’ You can study the environment through the lens of social science.”

Kelly is now a National Park Service ranger and volunteer program manager for the Alaska Region and Denali National Park and Preserve. Among her many duties, she helps place volunteers throughout the Alaska region at national parks to help with conservation efforts.

“I get a chance to help people save the earth every day, especially when I work with volunteers,” Kelly said. “I get to work with people who are not even there for the paycheck. They’re there simply because they absolutely love that place or love the National Park Service and what it stands for, and I get to facilitate that.”

This path is far from the one Kelly envisioned for herself. After earning her bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kelly decided to pursue a teaching certificate at Northeastern. She thought, perhaps, she would end up working for a senator and change the world through legislation.

Yet Kelly became more and more interested in Northeastern’s master’s program in Geography and Environmental Studies. She was accepted into the program and, shortly thereafter, was encouraged by a fellow student to apply for an internship with the National Park Service through the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a national organization with a mission to create stewards of the environment. She was accepted into an internship at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park in 1992. Since then, Kelly has worked at 11 national parks over 26 years.

Kelly returned to Northeastern on Nov. 6 to give two talks—one on navigating the federal hiring process and the other about her life in the national parks.

“Be honest, but don’t be modest,” Kelly advised the students who gathered for her seminar.

When it comes to applying for jobs with the federal government, many parks get hundreds of applications for a single seasonal position. She suggests that students highlight every accomplishment and skill they can in order to help them stand out. She also encouraged her audiences to take every opportunity for training they can get, even if it’s outside of their comfort zone. That being said, Kelly acknowledged that the amount of travel and amount of seasonal work that many park rangers have—as opposed to full-time yearly employment—is not for everyone.

“I kind of liked going from place to place, but I did feel when I was at Denali the first time, I added it up and I had been working for 12 seasons and still everything I owned had to fit in my car,” Kelly said. “I realized it was kind of time to stay in one place for a while. So, I was very lucky that I got an offer for a permanent position around the time I was starting to think it was maybe time for something else. … It’s really hard if you have a family. It can be really hard.”

Kelly spoke to about 50 students during her two programs at Northeastern. Biology major Sara France appreciated Kelly’s tips and encouragement.

“I’m one of the few Biology majors who is not into a medical field,” said France, who is also working to earn a minor in Environmental Studies. “About a month back, I checked out a national park or two and it’s kept my interest. Seeing that I can do this stuff and getting the advice on how is very helpful.”

That sort of feedback is music to the ears of Melinda Storie, associate professor and graduate coordinator in Northeastern’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. Storie had been in contact with Kelly for about a year trying to coordinate a campus visit—no easy feat for a park ranger stationed in Alaska. Storie said there are a number of students who are currently active in SCA and have expressed interest in working for the National Park Service.

“Our students want guidance on how to navigate real-world skills, like learning about USAjobs.gov and the federal hiring process,” Storie said. “I think these talks had wide appeal and attracted students outside of our program who wouldn’t normally attend.”

The National Park Service offers a wide range of careers. Kelly pointed out that many national parks are historic sites, and all are unique.

“I worked at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and that’s all about preserving our nation’s transportation history,” Kelly said. “We dressed in 1870s period clothing and worked a 19th century canal boat and lock system. I’m a city kid, and I learned how to work with mules. … If you’re interested in history, there are so many Civil War battlefields that are National Park Service sites and, of course, Revolutionary War sites and Independence Hall.”

In spite of the challenges of being a park ranger, Kelly said she wouldn’t change anything about her path. Her hope is that, when she retires, she can come back to Northeastern and finally finish her master’s degree, which she put on hold to further her career. In the meantime, she’s thankful for the opportunity she has to introduce the National Park Service to the Northeastern community, which she still holds in high regard.

“I think it’s really cool to bring more of the National Park Service to city kids because as a city kid, I was really ignorant of them,” Kelly said. “It’s an amazing adventure. I get to connect people with the best places on Earth. I am so incredibly lucky.”