Career Profile: Tara Gettig

An avid outdoor recreationalist, Tara Gettig has always loved public lands. But it wasn’t until she spent a summer as an intern at Shenandoah National Park that she discovered her passion for education in an outdoor setting. "I enjoyed watching visitors have an 'A-ha' moment," she recalls. Realizing that she could have a career that combined her interest in the natural world with her love of maps and curiosity about places, she joined the staff of Pennsylvania State Parks after completing her master's degree in geography at Shippensburg University in 2007. Tara worked in the agency's central office in Harrisburg for several years, where one of her duties was to help develop visitor maps. In May 2011, she became the environmental education specialist for Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

As the park's sole educator, Tara must be knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects. "I use my geography background to connect our park visitors and general public with Pennsylvania’s natural resources," she explains. As a geographer, she also strives to instill in visitors a "deeper sense that geography is beyond being just about places on a map to what makes those places special." Pine Grove Furnace State Park is celebrated as the mid-point of the Appalachian Trail, so Tara wants to promote awareness of the trail's historical and recreational importance as well as an appreciation for the nation's public lands and the challenges of creating and preserving them. "So many people live in close proximity to the trail, but they aren't aware that it's there and that there are hundreds of people traveling it," she observes.

Tara relies heavily upon her undergraduate training in communications, as both public speaking and writing play large roles in her work. Her outdoor experience also comes in handy, as the agency sees recreation as a means of fostering care and concern for natural resources. She's currently developing plans for an ecotourism program that incorporates hiking, biking, and paddling with an exploration of regional land uses and industries to demonstrate how geographic characteristics fit together to create a unique sense of place.

Reflecting on her professional development, Tara feels that her internships were critical in helping her to decide what kinds of work she likes and dislikes in addition to helping her build her professional network. She encourages geographers to seek out work-based learning opportunities to help them jump-start their careers, citing her agency's “excellent” internship program as one example.

Although Tara had no formal academic training in education, she believes the most important qualification for being an outdoor educator is "a passion for teaching others, for reaching out to others and getting them excited about what you're excited about." If you have that, she says that you can learn the necessary skills and information. Pennsylvania State Parks also offers its educators "Certified Interpretive Guide" training through the National Association for Interpretation, as well as many other training opportunities. [To learn more about NAI’s training and certification programs, visit http://www.interpnet.com/.]

Public lands have always faced funding challenges, and traditionally, educational programs have been among the first to be cut in tough economic climates. Fortunately, many forward-thinking leaders are becoming increasingly supportive of environmental education, recognizing that it is a key element in building support and creating stewardship for public lands. While many entry-level positions are short-term or seasonal, Tara notes that there are full-time opportunities for those who do well and are persistent. Employees who are willing and able to move around will find that the abundance of temporary positions allows opportunities to make a living traveling among the country's most beautiful places. Despite the current hiring constraints within all levels of government, Tara believes that we are building the next generation of workers to support public lands: "We see our interns as the future of the state parks."

This profile was published in 2012 by Dr. Joy Adams