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New Scholarship Paves Trail for Future Park Rangers

National Park Service sign.

For as long as she can remember, NC State alum Rebecca Harriett knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up: a park ranger. For her, the idea of working in the “green and gray” wasn’t just a child’s dream. It was her passion.

That passion, combined with a degree in parks, recreation and tourism management from the College of Natural Resources and a life-changing internship on the North Carolina coast, paved the way for Harriett’s 38-year career that spanned the country and a few international assignments.

In gratitude for that life and to help young students like she once was to find their passion, the 1979 graduate and her husband William Robert Lamar have created a scholarship designed to help students pursuing an undergraduate degree in parks, recreation and tourism management.

Preference will be given to students interning at a state or national park – just like Cape Lookout in Carteret County, North Carolina, where Harriett enjoyed her first internship. It’s also the park where she would later, returning from a stint in Seattle, Washington to take on management of Cape Lookout, meet her future husband.

“That’s why I wanted to create this scholarship, because that internship was really the jumping off point of me finding the National Park Service,” Harriett said. “I do feel that those three months that I spent at Cape Lookout doing my internship let me go in and say, ‘Wow, these are my people. This is where I belong.”

Harriett added that she wants young students “who are thinking about this field to have that opportunity. I realize how fortunate I was to be able to do it, and I’d like for others who want to pursue this not to have funding be a barrier. If this is their passion, and this is their career choice, that’s where they should be.”

The New Bern native said her career combined a love of the outdoors with a love of traveling and history, dating back to family trips when she was a little girl. She recalls that she always made it a point to go chat with the ranger in the “Smokey the Bear” hat. She proclaimed to one of those men that she would one day do what he does. “You can’t,” she recalled him telling her. “You’re a girl!”

“I remember thinking, what? We’ll change that,” she said with a laugh. “And I thought, ‘If you can be one, I can certainly be one.’”

After graduation, Harriett worked at 10 different National Park Service sites around the country. Her husband, whom she married in a church at Cape Lookout, continued to work for the agency for a while until he decided to pursue his studies in plant ecology. He is now a professor of biology at Ferrum College in Virginia.

As superintendent of Booker T. Washington National Monument and Harpers Ferry National Historical Parks, she worked countless hours forming and nurturing crucial partnerships helping to expand the boundaries of both parks – a move that guarantees protection of historical ground and environmental resources. That work, she said, was especially fulfilling. 

“History is the foundation of our country and if you don’t understand where we all came from or how we got to where we are, you’re destined to repeat past mistakes,” Harriett said. “It’s a foundational thing. I don’t know how you can survive without a firm historical foundation.”

The couple has two sons – one of whom is carrying on the family tradition and now works at Death Valley National Park in California. She still roots for the Wolfpack, along with her brother, who also attended NC State. That makes some game days a bit tough on her husband, she said with a chuckle. He’s a Duke University graduate.

Harriett retired seven years ago but recalled with pride her years wearing the iconic uniform and hat. “That hat is an iconic part of the uniform because it identifies us as someone from whom you’ll receive good information and help if you need it. It represents positive service and a positive connection to our nation’s righ and unique resources.”

This post was originally published in College of Natural Resources News.