Blake Johnson (ETM), US Army Corps of Engineers, Falls Lake

Explaining to children at Marbles Kids Museum what it means to be a Park Ranger with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers while teaching a lesson on water safety at Marbles Kids Museum for the Future Me Fair.

In the fall of 2014, I was a nervous college junior with little to no experience facing graduation in shortly over a year. Knowing I needed to gain environmental practice outside the field, I attended the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources Career Fair. Between speaking with companies, occasionally wandering to the bathroom to make sure my tie was straight and my hands weren’t too sweaty, and handing my resume to agencies that I knew very little about (I should have done my research), I thought, “what would make someone interested in hiring me, if even for a short time as an intern or co-op, with my lack of experience?”

Drawing to the end of my search, I stopped at a booth that stood out to me. A woman (who would later become my sponsor) was standing in a park ranger uniform next to a stand that featured an image of a ranger on a boat with a sign that said “US Army Corps of Engineers.” I spoke with the woman, Rebecca Thomson, for 15 minutes. I thought the position sounded out of my league, but we had a pleasant conversation and I left my resume and email to be nice. About three months later, I got a call from Ranger Thomson asking if I was still interested in a co-op.

When I arrived for my first day, I was handed the initial “first day paper work.” Between typos and writing things in the wrong line, I ended up having to scratch almost everything out to rewrite it. I was hoping that these first day blunders wouldn’t give my coworkers the wrong impression or be a faulty foreshadow to my new job. Even with the mistakes, I was given my new job duties, which were community outreach and program management.

Community outreach is an area I found both pleasurably and personally fulfilling. During the rec season, I would walk the swim beaches every Saturday and speak with children and parents about water safety: reminding everyone to always sport a life jacket in waters deeper than their height, always swim with a buddy, and always approach the water in a safe manner. I would speak with 75 – 200 people on any given Saturday, and 200 – 400 people on holiday weekends.

I worked at several community outreach events such as Apex Night Out, HWY 98 Safety Day, Community Heroes Day, and Future Me Fair. Future Me Fair at Marbles Kids Museum was an outreach event that really stands out as important in my time with the Corps. Before this event, I categorized outreach as another job responsibility with a slightly different background. I talked to kids about water safety, handed them some goodies and started talking to the next kid.

However, when Marbles asked me to come out I realized how important community involvement was. They were hosting “Future Me Fair, a career fair for kids” with a special focus on careers in the outdoors. They requested that I come as a park ranger representative to show kids what it was like to work in natural resources. I got to interact with kids from all different backgrounds and walks of life. I felt like I was making a greater impact than just talking to kids at the park; I was meeting kids where they are and truly being involved in the community with my role. Through this realization I grew not only the community involvement in parks, but I grew personally with my understanding of reaching out to those in the area.

In addition to going out to the community, I participated in outreach through graphic brochures. While educating myself, I attempted to aid some of our more curious visitors by creating a series of brochures I titled the Falls Lake Field Guide. So far, I have made a total of six brochures under this series covering species of bird that may be spotted around the lake: permanent residents, winter residents, spring residents, migratory residents, birds of prey, and a comprehensive list of all bird species. Additionally, I compiled a guide for trees to aid myself as well as current and future rangers, though the rangers that have been around for years are already very knowledgeable of flora and fauna.

Interpretive programs are one of my favorite parts of my job. I helped lead two programs geared towards a geology class of Meredith College students. This was a big learning experience for me as I prepared a lot to give them the most valuable experience. The feedback I got from the professor, however, was that I focused too much on the geology facts. It helped me gauge how visiting groups perceived me and helped me better prepare for future programs. I also lead two programs at our sister lake, Jordan Lake in Chatham County, teaching children about hydroelectricity and what goes into building a dam through hands-on activities. Before starting as a park ranger, I knew little to nothing about both geology and hydroelectricity. Knowing that I now know enough to communicate to both age groups in a way they can understand is rewarding and something I feel will carry over as a useful skill in my career.

Program management is also where the bulk of my outdoor responsibilities harbored. Shortly after my arrival, I constructed structures to monitor the presence of zebra mussel, an invasive mussel species. Monthly, I scaled both sides of the dam to record piezometer readings. In August, I aided in a prescribed burn at Jordan Lake Dam. Shortly after that, I began the annual aquatic exotic invasive plant species survey where I visited 46 sites along the lake, often braving thick vegetation, mosquitoes, chiggers, spiders, and harsh weather in order to record where invasive species such as hydrilla and creeping primrose on the lake. Recently, I constructed fish attractors out of cinderblocks and old Christmas trees because visitors were complaining about not catching fish by the fishing pier.

Coming back to campus, I feel that I have an improved sense of focus and commitment in my studies and a healthier balance between my responsibilities to myself and in steps towards my career. I enjoyed my work and I know I would not have been given the opportunity without my enrollment in an environmental program. Because of my time in work and out of school, I see my surroundings outside of the realm of a college student and realize there is much more to life outside of college.  And, I definitely think I could fill out all of my next job’s paperwork on the very first try, sans nerves. I firmly believe that deciding to co-op was not only the greatest decision of my college career, but one of the greatest decisions of my life. I have come back to school with added confidence backed by experience.