By TYLER ELLYSON
HOT SPRINGS, S.D. – Ronald Gonzalez has always been interested in wildlife, nature and other “outdoorsy stuff.”
He was born in Venezuela, where iguanas, giant grasshoppers, wild parrots and other exotic creatures are part of everyday life.
Although the flora and fauna are drastically different from his home country, Gonzalez didn’t lose that passion when his family moved to Nebraska in 2010. The Boone Central High School graduate knew he didn’t want a 9-to-5 office job that kept him cooped up inside all day.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney’s recreation, outdoor and event management program was a perfect fit for his adventurous attitude. With four specialization options – recreation management, event management, natural resource management and outdoor pursuits – the program prepares students for a multitude of careers related to travel, event planning, outdoor adventures and natural resources conservation.
“I really liked it,” said Gonzalez, who changed his major from wildlife biology to recreation management as a sophomore. “The classes were fun and the content was really cool.”
Every student in UNK’s recreation, outdoor and event management program finishes their education with an internship, giving them an opportunity to gain additional real-world experience that often leads to full-time job offers.
Gonzalez completed his internship at Wind Cave National Park in southwest South Dakota.
Established in 1903, Wind Cave is one of America’s oldest national parks. It spans 10,522 acres and features more than 30 miles of hiking trails with views of the beautiful Black Hills scenery. Bison, elk, pronghorn and many other animals roam the rolling prairie grasslands and forested hillsides.
The park’s top attraction is Wind Cave, one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. Named for the barometric winds at its entrance, this maze of passages is home to a wide array of formations, including boxwork, a honeycomb-shaped calcite structure that’s rarely found elsewhere.
As a summer intern, Gonzalez spent the majority of his time leading tours through Wind Cave and operating the visitor center. Using his on-site training and background from UNK, he developed his own program, creating a tour that’s both educational and entertaining for park guests.
“Pretty much everything involves talking with people, so you get pretty used to talking all the time,” said Gonzalez, who wasn’t a big fan of public speaking before this summer.
With three tours a day, that changed pretty quickly.
“This internship was great,” he said. “It allowed me to strengthen the skills I’ll continue to use later in my career.”
Gonzalez graduated from UNK in July with a bachelor’s degree in recreation management and accepted a full-time park ranger position at Wind Cave that extends into November. He plans to pursue a long-term position at another park after that.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time in the Park Service,” he said.