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Learning about service through National Parks

| Jessica Wicklund

Maria Delgado Gomez spent the summer at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She began her summer volunteering with visitor services assisting the facility management division at the most visited national park in the country.

Bilingual, Maria was able to reach out to diverse groups of youth who will lead the next generation of park attendees. Little did she know, she’d leave the park with newfound perseverance and the skills to prepare her for a life-long career.

Not expecting to complete her service-learning over the course of her internship, Maria dedicated an additional forty hours in visitor services to focus on serving. “I had an opportunity and ran with it.”

“The visitor interactions were eye-opening. I was able to transmit knowledge about the park and how we try to protect and preserve these resources. It was an opportunity to learn and partake in the park’s mission.”

While completing her service-learning hours, Maria recalled a particular experience.

“A family approached me in the park and were really sad they did not see any bears throughout their tour and asked, ‘So when do you release the bears?’. This was an opportunity to teach visitors about the importance of wild animals and the fact that their freedom to remain undisturbed is something to be proud of.”

She explained how enlightened the visitors were after speaking with her. “It was incredible to witness first hand. I was able to experience these interactions almost every day.”

Maria benefitted from more than just fulfilling a graduation requirement.

“A lot of students and professors tell you that internships are a great way to network. Unless you take the lead and apply yourself in that internship, you don’t know what it means. Networking is part of who we are as people; we are meant to be life-long learners throughout our social and professional lives. We should also be able to recognize other people’s skills and appreciate those qualities as well.”

Encompassing 522,419 acres, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. Maria noted, “Every time I would venture into the woods, I would learn a significant small truth about myself. I believe I have learned the equivalent of three years’ worth of wisdom in one summer. I was able to practice perseverance by overcoming what I thought was going to be one thing and then experiencing the complete opposite. It was a challenge for me, but I was able to adapt through adversities.”

Following graduation, Maria plans to join the Peace Corps and eventually return to the National Parks.