GSMNP high school internship experience – service and discovery

September 23, 2021

GSMNP interns clearing trail

by Julie Dodd

The students participating in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s high school summer internship program had quite a range of experiences during their six weeks in the park.

They explored the park and learned about park service careers. They replaced damaged picnic tables with the grounds crew. They helped in historic preservation at Elkmont. They worked with the Trails Forever crew, sawing and clearing brush along the Abrams Falls Trail. (See photo at the top of the post.)

They talked with park visitors about the importance of carrying water on a hike and wearing appropriate shoes. They assisted during the Firefly Festival. They learned skills needed for wildfire fighting.

New awareness of park resources and careers

“Their eyes were opened to the vast resources of the national park,” said Ranger Julianne Geleynse, who has been a coordinator of the internship program for eight years.

“They said they had no idea what this park had in it and had no idea the different kinds of careers and what is needed to manage the park.”

The program is a life changing experience for the interns.

“Some go on to careers in the National Park Service,” Geleynse said. “Others go into other careers but have a better appreciation of national parks and public lands.”

Geleynse explained that the program is limited to students from areas near the park because the program does not include housing, and the interns must commute to the park.

“I receive 400 to 500 inquiries a year from college and high school students from around the country about the internship program because it is such a unique program,” Geleynse said.

Recruiting and selecting interns

Geleyse and her co-lead with the program, Becca Foster from AmeriCorps, contacted area high school teachers in a wide range of subjects – from science to band and choir — to recruit applicants for the program.  

GSMNP lichen research
The interns collected lichen samples with a researcher from Colorado State University who was conducting research in the Park. NPS photo

“We wanted to get beyond ‘outdoorsy’ kids,” Geleyse said.

After reviewing the résumés to select students with a variety of backgrounds, the applicants were whittled to 15 students. Geleyse and Foster then contacted the teacher references.

They asked the teachers: Were the students willing to “step out of their comfort zone”? Did they have the ability to get along with others? Did they have a willingness to try new things?

After conducting online and phone interviews with the finalists, four interns were selected.

The number of interns was a reduction from previous years to accommodate COVID-19 protocols. The program was canceled during the summer of 2020 due to COVID-19.

In addition, two Fulton Fellows, students from Fulton High School in Knoxville, were part of the intern team for 2021. The Fulton fellowships were established to enable urban youth to be part of the internship program by providing transportation to the Smokies.

Five of the six interns had just graduated from high school before starting the internship. The other was a rising senior.

GSMNP high school interns and staff 2021
The interns participated in a field trip to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as a special treat during the last week of the internship. From left to right: Ranger Julianne Geleynse, Janasia Salde, Grace Pepperman, Kaylie Hallcox, Morgan Kirkpatrick, Adrian Thomas, Carson Johnson, and co-leader Becca Foster. NPS photo

Partners and funders

Funding for the internship program comes from a variety of sources — the National Park Foundation, the National Environmental Education Foundation, and the National Park Service’s Youth Partnership Program, Friends of the Smokies pays for supplies and for the program’s graduation event. The Tremont Institute provides some staff members to help with the program.

Partner organizations include the Boys and Girls Club, American Conservation Experience (ACE), CAC AmeriCorps, and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.

Range of educational and work experiences

“For many, the internship was their first real immersive experience in the park,” Geleynse said. She said that some students had driven through the park but had never hiked in the park.

The interns worked with numerous park staff, including the archeology team, the Trails Forever crew, the Wildland Fire Management program, the historic perseveration team, and numerous research teams. They even saw a new baby elk when they worked with the elk crew.

interns assisting with Elkmont restoration
Interns carried lumber for restoring cabins in Elkmont. NPS photo

“Not only is this education but a work experience,” Geleynse said. “They do a lot of work.”

Geleynse explained that they started out slowly with physical activities and then built up, enabling the interns to be successful with every project.

When the interns worked with the grounds crew, they replaced plastic tops of picnic tables that were melted when park visitors placed hot utensils — such as a pot that had been on the campfire — onto the table.

Working with the Trails Forever crew, the interns removed hundreds of invasive plants.  

At Metcalf Bottoms, they worked with visitors to remove rock dams that damage the habitat for aquatic life, like salamanders.

“They helped turn other young people into stewards of the environment,” Geleynse said.

Their work also included educating several hundred visitors. As part of the park‘s  Preventive Search and Rescue (PSAR) program, the interns helped visitors plan their hikes to avoid injuries.

repairing damaged picnic table
Interns work with the grounds crew to repair damaged picnic tables. NPS photo

GSMNP staff’s enthusiasm for working with interns

The park staff enjoyed working with the interns, Geleynse said.

“The staff’s enthusiasm passes down to the next generation,” she said. “Many of the folks who work with the interns share their own experiences, and the interns like to hear them tell their stories. The interns find it interesting to hear the paths that people take in their careers.”

In reviewing the interns’ feedback about their experience in the program, Geleynse found that the interns valued their time working with the GSMNP staff.

“A favorite part of the internship was working with the people of the Smokies,” Geleynse said. “The interns said they met some of the most passionate and kind people they had ever met.”

Tennessee interns

The summer interns for the Tennessee program were:

  • Kaylie Hallcox – Seymour High School graduate, attending the University of Tennessee/Knoxville in environmental science.
  • Carson Johnson – Maryville High School graduate. The internship led him to change his planned major to environmental studies.
  • Morgan Kirkpatrick – Cocke County High School (Newport) graduate, attending Walter State Community College with plans to become park ranger.
  • Grace Pepperman – Maryville High School graduate, attending Notre Dame in environmental engineering.
  • Janasia Slade – Fulton High School graduate and Fulton Fellow, attending cosmetology school.
  • Adrian Thomas – Fulton High School senior and Fulton Fellow. He has an interest in pursuing a medical degree but wants to determine how his career plans can include working outdoors.

An upcoming post will share some of the interns’ final projects.