By Jayna Milan | Dec 26, 2017

In the dead heat of summer, Natalie Pearlman, a UW senior studying molecular biology, found herself standing along the Missouri River surrounded by buffalo and fireflies. She watched as the sun slowly dipped below the wildflowers and distant rolling hills, the deep pink sunburn and itchy bug bites that covered her body quickly fading from her mind. Sitting beside her were five other college students and two professors who were all from various universities across the U.S. Together, they were spending a week in the Midwest as part of the annual Partners in Parks Program.

Every year, a handful of college students from across the U.S. spend a full week together at some of the most beautiful spots in the country-from the sweeping beaches of Acadia National Park to the dense forest of Olympic National Park. The Partners in the Parks Program, coordinated by the National Collegiate Honors Council and introduced to the UW in 2012, offers the unique opportunity for UW honors students (departmental and/or interdisciplinary) to go behind the scenes at a national park, meet the incredible people ensuring their survival, and connect with other college students.

Registration for the 2018 Partners in the Parks projects opened on Dec. 1. The UW Honors program has traditionally offered one scholarship covering the registration fee for a UW student - contact for more information.

I sat down with Natalie, last year’s scholarship awardee, to delve more into her experience with Partners in the Parks. You can also learn more about her experience in her blog post for the University Honors Program.

Out of all the different national parks you could have applied for, why did you decide to go for the Nebraska program, in the Missouri National Recreational River?

"Since the UW honors scholarship opens up in March after some of the programs had already started, I narrowed it down to four parks that had the right start date in June or July. For me, the Nebraska program stood out because it would allow me to explore topics that I was interested in: Native American culture and how American history marginalizes or erases important, often ugly, stories of the founding of our country. I am also currently studying biology, so I was looking for a program that focused on a topic outside of my discipline that would challenge me to think about the world differently. I’ve also never been to Nebraska, and I didn’t think I was likely to go in the future unless I did this program, so this was a great opportunity to explore that area.”

What role do we play in maintaining and preserving our national parks?

“Each national park tells a unique story. For example, you can visit Yosemite and learn all about Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir and how they fought for giving nature its own space, and you can visit Nebraska and the Dakotas and talk about the trail that the Lewis & Clark Expedition took. Especially as our spaces become more urbanized and we spend more of our days surrounded by technology, it's important for us to take the time to explore our parks and learn about the history and the people that used to reside there, especially Native Americans.

By visiting these spaces and learning their true history, we become better citizens. There’s that cliché of not repeating the mistakes from our past, but I think that we’re at a pivotal point in history where we’re seeing a lot of our rhetoric in politics shifting back to the way we talked in the past. We can understand our country’s history and past mistakes by visiting national parks. Yes, it’s easy to go to Mount Rainier and just get some great new pictures and take a hike, but there’s so much more! Take the time to not only explore nature but also to explore the resources that the parks offer. There are people who work at the parks that are willing and excited to educate the public and I think people easily skip that part of the National Parks, so... challenge yourself to spend 15 minutes at the Visitors center to talk to a ranger and/or go up on a History Day!”

In your blog post, you wrote in detail about the importance of rewriting history, specifically when talking about national parks and the history of Lewis and Clark, can you touch upon that a little more?

“Yeah! I think it’s important to recognize not only when the history that we learned in school was rewritten, but also why and who it has impacted since. Our group spent a lot of time discussing what we knew about the Lewis & Clark story and for me, I was like ‘Ah well, Lewis and Clark had a boat, Sacagawea came with them, they learned and mapped, found all these cool specimens, sent them back to Jefferson, and here we are!’ As a 20 year old, that’s the history I knew and was taught. But in our discussions, we challenged what we were taught. The Lewis & Clark story didn’t just involve two men in a keel boat; There were slaves, Native Americans, and Europeans-and not everyone was willing to go on the trip! We also challenged the role that Sacagawea has historically played in our history textbooks as Lewis and Clark’s 'helper' and instead focused on what she truly accomplished – she was the sole reason the expedition stayed primarily nonviolent and without her navigational skills, they would have never discovered important landmarks that areas still important today. It's important to relearn those stories and recognize that many voices have been left out, our history has not always been beautiful, and its implications have hurt a lot of people.”

What were some questions you pondered and discussed with your group while on the trip? Or maybe questions that you asked yourself afterwards?

“Some questions included: What does it mean that we have changed our history and the stories that we teach? What kind of ramifications do these stories have for the future if these stories we’re telling aren’t true - especially considering the story of Lewis and Clark. Why is it important that we’re conserving these national parks?

Personally, I thought a lot about how important it is to explore my own country as well. It’s easy to think that as an American citizen, I have a great understanding of my country, but two weeks in the Midwest made me reevaluate what I knew. Especially with the political debates we’ve been having, it’s essential that we better understand how people's’ politics, beliefs, views, and ways that they live their lives are very much shaped by the areas they live in. By developing a better understanding of those areas, you are inherently granted more perspective. It made me ask myself: where else have I not explored and who else have I not met?”

You described how telling stories from a wide range of people on the trip, especially the tribe members you met with, was a powerful tool to understanding the past. Can you speak a little more about this and the importance of storytelling in passing on cultural values, family history, etc. to sustain a living history?

“Yeah, storytelling was a really unique part of the program. One thing that stood out to me was that we could listen to the park rangers tell us all these details about Lewis & Clark as we have records upon records of what they thought when they saw this specific flower and what this specific apple tasted like to them… but when we were at the reservation talking to the tribe members, there was a whole 20-40 year period of their family’s history where they don’t know what happened. Records were destroyed, people were taken from their homes, language and culture was erased through the naturalization process. So, hearing them talk about not knowing all of their history was shocking in parallel to the whole Lewis & Clark story, which had been perfectly recorded. It really opened my eyes to the privilege I have as I can easily ask family members questions like, ‘What was it like to travel to Ellis Island for our family? How did we end up in California?’, when there are other people my age who can’t do that. It’s not something you think about a lot. Especially, as a college student, you’re thinking about day-to-day things and not necessarily about the path that was already paved for you."