“Go Play Outside,” with Emma Burke

Emma BurkeAmanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert. And today we sat down with Emma Burke. She just graduated from SPU in 2021 with a degree in psychology, but she saw her education as more than a degree. She saw a ticket to the rest of her life. After working in a national park and volunteering with an interpretive park ranger, she hopes to spend the first chapter of her career playing outside. Emma, thank you so much for joining us today.

Emma Burke: Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Amanda: Well, I love this idea of thinking of education as a ticket to the rest of your life as opposed to something that you’re going to get a stamp on a piece of paper so that you can get a specific job. Tell me about how you were looking out for this of all these opportunities as you were coming toward the end of your time at SPU?

Emma: Yeah, so I definitely didn’t always think this way. I mean, honestly, for a while I was really considering dropping out just because I was really struggling to find purpose in going to college when I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I think that line of thinking kind of started toward the end of my college career, more specifically like Winter Quarter, maybe of senior year, came up one day.

I really definitely just wanted to look at all this time and money that I’d spent as being something that was worth it in the end even if I didn’t really have an end goal at the time. I definitely don’t think college is the only form of entry ticket to the rest of your life, but it’s definitely a prominent one, and it’s a good one. I’ve learned that for whatever I like to do, it definitely helps to have a leg up in having this piece of paper that says, “Hey, I spent four years on focusing on whatever it was, and I made it through, and I can prove that to you in whatever said position I’m going for at the time.”

Amanda: Yeah. I mean, that’s why I personally am such a fan of a liberal arts education. It’s interesting that now more than ever people are talking about not needing that because you can just sort of learn as you go because so many careers are changing so quickly. And yet, in my mind, I feel like we need it more than ever for that very reason, like you’re not really sure what you’re going to do 10, 20, even 30 years from now. That job may not even exist, so learning how to learn, and learning how to shift, and learning to lead, and learning how to be a team member, those are just immeasurable skills, don’t you think?

Emma: Yeah, definitely. Even if you don’t see a point in college while you’re in the midst of it kind of like I didn’t, it was more so just, “Oh, this is so monotonous going to class and learning interesting things, but what can I really do with this?” It’s just so helpful to have that degree in your back pocket in case you ever do need it.

“It’s just so helpful to have that degree in your back pocket in case you ever do need it.”

Amanda: Right. I think it’s amazing how often something that, again, I’ll just speak for myself, but something I learned in a psychology class, or a history class, or a literature class tends to eventually be that one little spark that ignites something completely different in your life. Whether it’s as a business person, as a parent, as a friend, you remember those things because we learn for a reason, and I don’t think any learning is wasted.

Emma: Yeah. I would definitely agree with you there.

Amanda: Yeah. So, OK. So let’s talk about this National Park Ranger program. What about that spoke to you?

Emma: Yeah, so I definitely, as a brief synopsis, I would say that nature and environmentalism and just getting outside has kind of been the golden thread of who I am my entire life. It’s always been the thing that I’ve gravitated toward, but I never really considered it as something that I could get paid to do, or that was even OK to want to do in life since that’s not really something they teach you in school. I’ve never really heard anybody say, “Oh, you could also be an outdoor environmentalist. You could be a wildlife teacher.” Something like that. They definitely don’t show opportunities like that, I guess, in school, at least from what I’ve seen.

Maybe it’s different now, but when I was growing up, I didn’t know the outdoor industry existed. I don’t know. I never really had noticed rangers before, but as I got older, I really started trying to hone in on what is it that I’m passionate about? What do I really like? What am I good at? I don’t know. I’m a person who is good at many different things. I am passionate about many different things, but it’s difficult to, I guess, hone in on one when there are so many options.

Amanda: Well, I think that’s the lovely thing about just getting out of college and being able to take an opportunity like this is that you’re learning. You’re learning what is actually out there that speaks to you because I think we do growing up in elementary school and junior high and high school it seems like the world is fairly narrow as what you get to do for a job. And then we grow up and get to college and, hopefully, this whole new world of opportunities, right, comes up for you. So tell us about this mentorship experience.

Emma: Yeah. So that came about kind of toward the end of college, as well. I started kind of considering doing a mentorship probably Winter Quarter of my junior year. I’d taken a kind of vocational studies class just to fill space in my quarter, but it also sounded really interesting. And within that class I learned about a term called multipotentialite. I don’t think it’s actually a word, but I thought it was a really great descriptor for me, and just lots of people that I know. It basically means you’re a multifaceted person who could go many ways, many directions in life with a career, or just what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t know the outdoor industry existed.”

I really took that and ran with it and decided that maybe a good way of honing in on figuring out what it is that I really want to do career-wise was to pursue a mentorship. I reached out to Center for Career and Calling, and eventually got matched up with Kate Barker. She was really, really helpful in helping me to narrow down what I was looking for because I had probably five different interests that I was looking at in terms of a mentor, very vastly different. And she said, “Emma, let’s maybe just condense this down to one kind of person, like, one to just make it a little bit easier.”

Amanda: One at a time.

Emma: Exactly. So that definitely stressed me out at first because I’m thinking, “Well, what if I pick the wrong one? I don’t want to waste this experience. I don’t have that much time left here.” But the idea of mentoring with a park ranger just continued to pop into my head, and I’m like, “When am I going to get an opportunity like that, that’s so, I guess, readily accessible.” Kate immediately started searching for a park ranger and we didn’t have any connections, which didn’t surprise me because if you’re a park ranger you’re probably not going to a school in the city and studying psychology. It took her a little while to connect with a park ranger and eventually she found a woman named Emily, and she’s an interpretive national park ranger in Glacier National Park. Six months later, I was paired with her and we started an awesome mentorship.

Amanda: And what does a mentorship look like? How is that different than say an internship?

Emma: Yeah. So I would say the main difference is that you’re learning more so through stories, or just kind of advice. Emily obviously had been through the whole application process for becoming a ranger and just the kind of experiences you need, the volunteer experience. She was able to tell me about that and give me connections just through talking instead of actually being there and playing out these circumstances with her, or scenarios, rather. We were just kind of talking back and forth having a conversation about what it could look like for me, and how she got there, how I may be able to go about getting there in my own way, as well.

Amanda: It almost sounds like as if you had a family member say an aunt or uncle that’s doing work that you want to do, and so over coffee you just, “Tell me about it. Tell me how you got there. Tell me what you like about it. Tell me what you don’t.” I love the idea of being able to find that aunt or uncle in the business even though you don’t actually have one.

Emma: Exactly. It was very helpful.

Amanda: That’s fantastic. What would you say was the top thing that you learned from her, or even the most surprising thing that you learned through that relationship?

Emma: Well, I guess one of my favorite things that I learned is that you didn’t have to have a specific degree. Like that’s something I was really, really nervous about going into it. I was worried that I finally found something that sounded interesting in terms of a career, and I don’t have a major that can help me do it, but that was definitely not the case. She told me that she knows park rangers who were journalists before, like they have a degree in journalism, or they were chemistry professors, or they were car salesmen. I don’t know. Just people from all over the place with a degree in whatever it is they studied who just have a shared passion for the outdoors and wanting to protect and preserve public lands. And that’s really all you need is a degree, and experience to get there.

“All you need is a degree, and experience to get there.”

Amanda: Well, and like you said, you didn’t have ecology, or geology, or something that may seem like a direct link. You came with a psychology degree, but do you think that psychology degree will help you in that work as you enter the park world?

Emma: Yes, most definitely. I’ve already seen how helpful it is, just having worked at Yellowstone National Park over the summer. I wasn’t a ranger yet, but I got to work as a front desk agent at the Old Faithful Inn, so I was checking people into their rooms, helping them kind of troubleshoot issues they had while they’re figuring out what they wanted to see, like what time Old Faithful was predicted to erupt next. The whole nine yards when it comes to Yellowstone, but it definitely was helpful to have an understanding of people, and how they operate in high-stress situations, especially, just because a lot of guests and visitors would come and they’d be really overwhelmed, or they’d be kind of frustrated because maybe their room wasn’t ready yet, or they missed the last Old Faithful eruption, and just being able to be empathetic to those situations. And, again, to help troubleshoot and figure out what can we do to make this experience better for you and just help you have the time of your life while you’re in Yellowstone.

I think that will be really helpful in terms of being a teacher as a ranger because a lot of what interpretive rangers do is teaching. I think knowing that learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of thing is very important that everybody learns at a different pace, and different ways will be really helpful. That kind of goes with education, as well as just having an understanding of psychology that everybody will understand in a different way and presenting things in a different way makes a big difference in terms of helping them see in a different way that maybe they hadn’t considered before, and even just to, hopefully, care about the things that I’m talking to them about.

Amanda: Yeah. I feel like honing that skillset in the park for however long, maybe you’ll be a ranger for 50 years. Maybe it will be two or three years, but honing the skillset you just described, I mean, you can take that into literally any job.

Emma: Yeah, truly. I think that’s my favorite part now. Hindsight is 20/20. In the midst of getting this degree I definitely didn’t see that, but now I am so grateful that I chose a degree that really is applicable anywhere. Even if I never become a therapist, or a life coach, or anything like that, it helps me as a person to be the best version of myself.

Amanda: As long as we’re talking about that building out who you are as you begin to explore different fields and careers, how does your faith play a role in your desire to, one, be outdoors? And, two, be a teacher?

Emma: I definitely would say I come from a lens of a Christian in a sense, but not so much anymore. I’m more so spiritual I would say, but I definitely see creation as probably the best way to see a higher power working, or the best way to connect spiritually. I think for a lot of people that’s similar. It’s very clear to see when you’re out in nature just the very intimate design of things and how it’s all woven together. Whether you believe in a higher power, or not, I definitely think that being out in nature there is a sense of some sort of divine force behind it.

“I am so grateful that I chose a degree that really is applicable anywhere.”

I definitely want to protect that, whatever that may be. It’s life-changing. It really is. It’s healing. I think nature is one of the best teachers that we have. And if we lose that, I think we lose life itself. So protecting and preserving public lands, and even just the green belts that our houses back up to, is so important. I think teaching people about that is key in keeping just this divine nature flourishing so that we, too, can flourish.

Amanda: Yeah, how much we as human beings have an innate need for nature. I think whether you’re someone who studies the Bible, or not, there are verses in the Bible that say, “God can be found in nature.” Whether someone’s teaching you the theology of Christianity, or not, that God can be found in the nature that has been created. I think we see that more and more in our modern world, that as we get taken farther and farther away from nature that we need it more and more, that that really is an innate human need.

Emma: Absolutely. Yeah.

Amanda: Yeah. So as you’ve just finished your time as a student, and you’re looking ahead to this fabulous new job in a national park, do you have a nugget of wisdom, or a moment that you shared with a professor? I feel like all the alums I talk to, and maybe it takes some time for you to be able to think back and pick it out, but they’ll have these moments that they say, “I think back to this one thing my professor told me time and time again.” Maybe it’s a little too early, but do you have one of those yet?

Emma: I think I would say just all my professors as a whole were very encouraging in, I guess, showing me that, yes, you can do anything with this degree. When I was open and honest with them about struggling, about wanting to drop out, and not having a sense of direction in school, they were all very understanding and said, “Yeah, I’ve experienced the same thing.” I think that’s how it is for a lot of people. And it takes grit to stay with it when you don’t see the end goal in sight.

I think the biggest takeaway within all of that is just sticking with it because so, so much good comes at the end of it all, just this immense freedom and knowledge that you truly are able. If you can finish a four-year degree, you can do anything that’s difficult, and that’s something I feel was instilled in me through a lot of the professors I got close with, just that encouragement, and knowing that you can finish this. Just finish it. It’s a means to an end, and a bright future is awaiting at the end of it all. You just got to get through the unknown first.

“It takes grit to stay with it when you don’t see the end goal in sight.”

Amanda: Yeah. I feel like everyone who has graduated during this time of the pandemic should get an extra gold star on their diploma. Like, “Oh, you actually had to work harder.”

Emma: I agree.

Amanda: Well, Emma, we like to end all of our episodes with the same question, and I’m very curious to see how you’ll answer this. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that’s going to make the world a better place, I think I know what you’re going to say, but I’m curious to see what would you have us do?

Emma: Well, number one, stop littering.

Amanda: Oh, that’s great. I thought you were going to say go outside, but stop littering is a great one.

Emma: Number one, stop littering, but number two, get outside. Reconnect with that inner child that was just carefree, was OK running around and getting mud between their toes, just enjoying the smell of fresh-cut grass, and listening to the water running down by the canal. Reconnecting with your roots in the matter that makes you who you are.

Amanda: Absolutely. I immediately got a picture of that Friends episode where Phoebe runs like she did when she was 5 or 6 years old, and Rachel gets embarrassed. I think of that episode all the time, that we all need to get back to enjoying the outside like we did when we were little kids and it was just fun. It was just fun. And we didn’t worry about what anyone else thought, or what we were wearing, or what time we had to get back.

Emma: Exactly. Just connecting back to what makes us, us.

Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you, Emma, for taking time with us today as you are preparing to go back to the outdoors, and take on your career. Let me pray our prayer of blessing over you. May the Lord bless you and all you put your hands to. May the Lord be gracious to you, and all who hear your story. May God bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much.


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