‘Tuskegee Smokies Experience’ introduces Tuskegee University students to NPS careers

January 31, 2023

Tuskegee Smokies Experience students with Fisheries team

by Julie Dodd

The Tuskegee Smokies Experience – a new partnership between Tuskegee University and Great Smoky Mountains National Park — provides Tuskegee University students with the opportunity to learn about careers within the National Park Service.

Tuskegee Smokies Experience - Spring 2022
Tuskegee Smokies Experience group from Spring 2022. The group includes Dr. Olga Bolden-Tiller (back row, second from left), Ranger Dexter Armstrong (back row, fourth from left), Ranger Julianne Geleynse (back row, third from right), next to Dr. Rashida Farid; Ranger Susan Sachs (front row, on the right) and Americorps member Morgan Kirkpatrick (front row, on the left). NPS photo

“The objective of the program is to introduce students to a variety of career fields in the NPS and give the students the opportunity to connect with National Park natural and cultural resources,” said Ranger Julianne Geleynse.

“The experience is designed to give the students hands-on experience in the management of park resources.  Students work with park staff in Archaeology, Wildlife, Air Resources, Fisheries, Resource Education and Law Enforcement,” she said.

Idea and collaboration

Rangers Julianne Geleynse, Dexter Armstrong and Michael Smith collaborated to create and launch the Tuskegee Smokies Experience, which was piloted during 2022. Two cohorts of Tuskegee University students visited the park with faculty members.

“I had wanted to do a program like this for some time, using the high school internship program the park had been doing for years as a model,” explained Julianne, who coordinates the high school internship program. “Dexter’s arrival to the park was the catalyst that made it possible.”

Tuskegee Smokies Experience - Fall 2022
Tuskegee Smokies Experience group, Fall 2022. NPS photo

Julianne and Dexter, who work in the same building, began to brainstorm ideas about creating a GSMNP program to bring college students to the Park to introduce them to NPS opportunities.

Dexter, a Tuskegee University graduate in Animal Science, had participated in a program like the Tuskegee Smokies Experience that led to him become a NPS ranger.

“I had my mind set on vet school early in my academic journey, however, the reality of everyone making it to vet school is an unrealistic expectation,” Dexter said.

“So, I made sure I kept my options open while still going after my primary goal,” he said. “Due to being selected to a program much like the one we conduct here at the park while I was in college, I was able to be exposed to the National Park Service and sought out a career with the organization.”

Connecting with Tuskegee University

Dexter’s connection with Tuskegee University was a key piece to launching the program.

“I wanted a way to pour back into my alma mater the way it poured into me,” he said. “With Julianne having an idea and the blueprint of the high school program and with my connection with Tuskegee, it was a perfect situation. I literally reached out to my professor and advisor, Dr. Olga Boden-Tiller, with the idea, and she was all in.”

Dexter and Michael, who also is a Tuskegee University graduate in Animal Science, made a trip to Tuskegee to interview the first cohort of students. A few short weeks later, the students were in the park for the pilot program.

Students work with NPS staff members

The students spent a week in the Park, working with different NPS staff members.

The students helped conduct research at the Smokemont Campground with the Archeology team. The students dug “test pits” to analyze the site, collecting and sifting the soil for artifacts.

Working with the Wildlife staff, the students helped tag and collar a 1-year-old female elk for the required monitoring.

They worked with the Fisheries team to learn how freshwater species are protected in the Park.

They toured the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum.

“The experience becomes truly immersive by spending one night camping and cooking over a campfire,” Julianne said.

Realizing a wider range of career options

Dexter said that the Tuskegee Smokies Experience helps the college students recognize a wider range of career options.

“While not trying to sway the minds of the students that are selected, one of the main goals of the program is to expand the lens the students are looking through,” Dexter said.

Tuskegee Smokies Experience selfie at Purchase Knob
Tuskegee Smokies Experience students at Purchase Knob with Ranger Dexter Armstrong (center), Ranger Julianne Geleysne (right in back) and Americorps member Morgan Kirkpatrick (left in back). NPS photo

“Much like me, typically in the field of Animal Science or similar majors, students have a tunnel vision approach and have no idea that other careers exist in the world outside of becoming a veterinarian,” he said.

“This program provides exposure to the various careers that can be gained through the National Park Service in a hands-on approach. All gained by working and learning right beside subject matter experts in their field and craft,” he said.

One outcome of the 2022 program was that two of the students in the pilot program gained internships in the Park last summer.

In 2023, Friends of the Smokies is supporting the Tuskegee Smokies Experience. The program will bring two cohorts of 12 Tuskegee University students and two professors for a week-long trip to the Smokies.

“The Park and park visitors benefit from the education and experiences this program provides,” Julianne said. “Each of these students leaves the program with a better understanding of the work that goes into preserving and protecting park resources and visitors. They walk away prepared to be stewards of our public lands and know that these public lands belong to them and will be there for future generations with their help.”