Visitation graduates pursue all kinds of paths, from the traditional, to the winding, to the off the beaten path sort of path. What every Visitation graduate shares is her desire to be herself and be that well, in whatever way that fits her.
For Colleen Pennington '07, she has found her best self out in the wilderness as a Park Ranger, pursing a unique career devoted to National Parks, and to sharing her passion of them with others. We caught up with her recently and learned about what she does.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I went to Eckerd College in Florida - the first person from Visitation to ever go there! I double-majored in Environmental Studies and History. I also have a Master’s degree in European Studies from the London School of Economics.
How did you know you wanted to become a Park Ranger?
Growing up, many of our family trips were centered around visiting specific National Parks. My parents always encouraged me to complete the Junior Ranger program at each park which often included attending ranger programs. I found Park Rangers to be incredibly inspiring - not just the work they were doing but how they lived in wild places too. I’ve always known I need to be in a field that I am deeply passionate about and where I can be inspired by the people around me.
What do you do as a Park Ranger?
Each day varies, which is something I find to be very motivating. I may start a day out on park trails checking on safety concerns - like if there is a possibly a bear in the park - or interacting with visitors in an informal way. After that I might give short programs on topics ranging from the totem poles in the park, sea otter ecology, or touring the historic Russian Bishop’s House (all specific to where I am working now at Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, AK). Later I may spend a few hours staffing the front desk, answering visitor questions, or researching to prepare for a new program in our park library. I really enjoy all the aspects of it!
What did you learn at Visitation that helps you in your job today?
The biggest thing by far is time management. I probably have too many hobbies for my own sanity, but I’m able to accomplish a lot both at work and outside of it because I manage my time well. It’s all about balance though, and also prioritizing what you need to do. Sometimes you have the energy to check off a bunch of things from the never-ending to-do list that is being a human, and sometimes you need to just sit outside and let yourself relax.
What was your pathway to becoming a park ranger?
Becoming a park ranger is very competitive, and with the amount of people who apply to every position, the process can feel daunting. You also have to be willing to move constantly - particularly early in your career. I’ve probably moved three or four times a year since grad school and that can be exciting but incredibly exhausting too.The way I was able to get to where I am has involved a lot of volunteering and internship-type positions, and also gaining experience in related fields. Even though instant success is rare, the silver-lining to the stress of the long-term commitment to professional progress is the amazing people you meet along the way and the mentors that have been through it who help make the experience more manageable. And you get to have adventures living in beautiful places, free from the constant oppression of internet usage, which is a rare gift.
What are your aspirations for the future?
Professionally I want to be a leader in protecting and managing wilderness areas on an international level. Our National Parks are a dream come true, but we have to work globally to truly be stewards of our planet. Outside of work, I’ve been trying to learn at least one new craft skill each year. I’m hoping to maybe try woodworking next, or maybe make a basket. I also would love to spend a winter training for a cross country ski race….and one day I’d like to raise a baby goat. See above RE: too many hobbies.
What was your favorite class at Visitation?
While I do love reminiscing about Aesthetics of Music by listening to “Bolero” very loudly, but hands-down my favorite class was French. I am so grateful to have learned a skill that is, in my opinion, invaluable. Class was like stepping into a parallel universe, with the best views from the top of Founder’s Hall, where I could work towards my life goal of being a French person.
Any advice for Visitation students today?
“Be who you are and be that well” are seriously some powerful words to live by. People see, appreciate and respect authenticity, so always try to grow and work towards being your best unique you. Also be kind! Life can get so heavy at times, so strive to be a light for yourself and others around you - creating magic when you can!