SRU student explores caves at internship

Published by adviser, Author: Rebecca Sherriff - Contributor, Date: September 17, 2015
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Some people have a phobia of being in the dark and some people are even claustrophobic.  During her internship over the summer, Jessica Schottanes did what most student would never dream of doing.

Schottanes, a sophomore environmental science major at Slippery Rock, recently completed a three month internship program at Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota.  While working with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and the National Park Service (NPS), Schottanes was able to not only gain valuable work experience in her field, but also expand her knowledge of the environment and the impacts made upon it by humans.

While the New Jersey native initially found it difficult to adjust to spending the summer three hours behind friends and family with little digital connection to the “outside world,” Schottanes soon connected with one of the last frontiers in the American west. 

“It was rewarding to wake up every morning to such a beautiful landscape,” Schottanes said. “And go to bed every night beneath the stars.”

For the duration of the summer, Schottanes led groups of 20-30 guests on a multitude of scenic and historic caving explorations and hikes.  Each trip varied in activity level, height, depth and the variety of formations witnessed.   She also presented environmental education programs on the cave’s formation and the monument’s wildlife, improved her community outreach and public speaking skills, studied cave mapping, resource management, wildlife monitoring and the geology of the location, as well as contributed to the youth program section of the Monument’s website. 

“As a park ranger,” Schottanes said, “my main purpose was to protect Jewel Cave while also allowing others the opportunity to visit and enjoy its beauty.  This was a very difficult task in a place as delicate as a cave.”

Simply walking through the cave system has the potential to damage the fragile rock formations.  One of Schottanes’ main duties as a ranger was to protect the cave from guests while also encouraging visitors to appreciate its natural wonder. 

“I had to constantly remind participants not to touch the formations,” she said.  “We have oils on our fingers that alter the formations in a negative way.  [Also,] no food, gum or drinks were allowed in the caves.”

As a student preparing to enter the workforce in two years, Schottanes believes that her experience has given her a valuable competitive edge in the market. 

“I now have an extraordinary story that will separate me from other job applicants,” she said.  “I explored the depths of the third longest cave in the world, became familiar with caving instruments and mapping techniques, networked with others in my field, and engaged in environmental and community outreach.” 

Schottanes was able to engage in this internship experience because of the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service.  Working with an organization such as the SCA not only improves credibility with potential employers, but also allows students to gain valuable practical experience. 

“The SCA provides hands-on programs for young adults who are passionate for stewardship, sustainability and ultimately the environment,” she said.  “Whether it’s a park ranger, urban planner, or field scientist position, all SCA internships challenge an individual’s skills, knowledge and desire for exploration and change.”

Schottanes applied the skills she leared at Slippery Rock’s science program to her internship. Schottanes also explained that even though the university is an ecologically strong institution, her interactions with faculty were what significantly bolstered her “awareness of and passion for the environment.”

Schottanes is now planning on pursuing a career in professional nature photography, environmental research, and journal writing for publications such as National Geographic.  She also intends on working alongside non-profits such as the World Wildlife Fund, as well as potentially starting her own non-profit organization that raises awareness of the exponentially declining well-being of the ecosystem. 

“I never thought in a million years that I would be a park ranger at Jewel Cave,” Schottanes said. “However, I am lucky to have embarked on this life-changing, thrilling adventure.  I strongly recommend other Slippery Rock students in the field of Environmental Science to get involved with the SCA and the NPS.  Who wouldn’t want to travel to new places and go on a new adventure?”

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