From the Classroom to the Great Outdoors: Internship with National Parks Service

This post was written Duke MBA student, Jessica Dennis in October 2014. Jessica completed an internship with the National Park Service at the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville, NC. This internship was made possible with the support of the Summer Internship Fund.

When I first set foot at Fuqua in July 2013, I had no idea I would be spending the following summer in Asheville, NC working as an intern for the National Park Service (NPS). But I’ve learned that business school is the ideal place to take risks, apply yourself, and grow from every experience.

Before Fuqua, I worked in strategy and operations consulting, often working for Fortune 500 companies all over the U.S. My normal work settings included: the airport, Sheraton hotel rooms, and small unoccupied conference rooms at my client sites. For one project, I worked the graveyard shift for four consecutive weeks to support a client during a software implementation.

When I started looking for a summer internship, at first, I tried to “play it safe” by applying for positions that mirrored my consulting experiences. However, one internship posting kept catching my eye every time I scrolled through the never-ending list of summer opportunities: NPS Business Plan Internship (BPI). Around application time, I visited the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and was awestruck by the passion of the park rangers, who delivered the perfect blend of scientific facts and personal preferences for sightseeing, hiking, etc. I “took a risk,” applied, and was delighted to receive the offer to join the ranks of the BPI for the summer.

My summer kicked off with a week of training in Yellowstone National Park with 15 other summer interns. During working hours, the training looked like any other, with PowerPoint presentations and binders full of acronyms and their definitions. In the evenings, we explored the park in full force, seeing such highlights as Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. During the week of training, I also met my co-intern and managers. Together, we scoped and planned for ten weeks of intense work that would help the Blue Ridge Parkway better understand its financial position and future budget scenarios.

During my first few weeks at the Blue Ridge Parkway, my assigned location for the summer, I traveled almost the entire length of the parkway getting to know park staff from various offices. Compared to many organizations I encountered as a consultant before school, park staff shared an overwhelming and contagious passion for their work and the mission of the parks: “to provide for the enjoyment of the [national parks] in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (

The trip along the Parkway required me to step outside of my comfort zone and get to know others with different backgrounds, experiences, and roles. The skills I learned in Managerial Improvisation at Fuqua were extremely helpful to me during this time. I felt confident in my ability to steer conversations on a productive rather than overly critical path, even though some of the employees I met were frustrated with recent budget cuts in the wake of increasing demands from visitors, nonprofit partners, and local and national politicians.

In addition to meeting with Park staff, I synthesized six years of accounting data to identify trends in Parkway expenditures. I combined the expenditure analysis with available information regarding future discretionary spending, and I developed several budget and expenditure scenarios for the Parkway to consider. This information helped the Parkway understand the ways in which they were operating that were more or less efficient than other park units in the 400+ system of the National Park Service. I leaned heavily on the skills from my Information Management class at Fuqua to manage several large data sets and produce meaningful summaries to share with my supervisors.

Ribbon-cutting at the opening of a newly-constructed comfort station that will benefit both the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pisgah National Forest.

At the end of the summer, one of my proudest accomplishments was traveling to the National Park Service Southeast Region office in Atlanta to present my internship project. My co-intern and I selected the most relevant findings and delivered a 45-minute presentation to the regional directorate. They congratulated us on a job well done, and my supervisors told us how pleased they were with the analysis and presentation.

My summer experience taught me the importance of taking professional risks. Going into my first-year, I did not think I would have the skills or experience to make an impact at such a longstanding, mission-driven organization such as the National Park Service. However, I found a way to apply the skills I learned at Fuqua and contribute to the NPS mission. I am grateful for the opportunity to give back and take part in protecting our country’s most impressive natural and cultural resources this summer at the Blue Ridge Parkway. Because of this experience, I will be a lifelong advocate for the park system, and I will feel confident in my ability to support the parks through my MBA skillset.

The Summer Internship Fund (SIF) enables first year Duke MBA-Daytime students to learn about the rewards and challenges of social sector management without making a significant financial sacrifice. In addition, the program enables organizations that otherwise could not afford to hire MBA student interns to benefit from students’ expertise.  The SIF has supported more than 150 students, distributed nearly $470,000, and helped to further the mission of many nonprofit and government organizations. Funds are raised through student fundraising and from donors who believe in the mission of the program.  If you would like to contribute, you can donate online.