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Corps to Career | Maria Rago

ACE is proud to share a Corps To Career story with former ACE volunteer and staff, Maria Rago.  Maria started as a corpsmember and would soon move up in the organization due to her passion for conservation and leadership. After her career with ACE, Maria became a Wildland Firefighter for Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and then Zion National Park.  Maria serves as a role model to those in search of outdoor experience and a future in Wildland Firefighting.     

Alumna Name:  Maria Rago

Pronouns: She/Her 

Dates Served: July 2017- February 2020

What roles was Maria in: corpsmember, assistant team leader, crew leader

Location: Mountain West, Hurricane, Utah

Q:  What were you doing before ACE?  

A: After I graduated from Slippery Rock University in Dec 2016, I moved back home to Pittsburgh. I was working at a daycare program called the Eagle’s Nest that looked after kids while their parents were shopping at the grocery store the daycare was located in.

Q:  How did you hear about ACE?

A: I heard about ACE from someone that I went to college with that just got a job as a crew leader. He graduated a semester before me and reached out after he spent a few months at ACE and thought I would fit in well.

Q: Walk me through your time with ACE? What was your favorite aspect of being an ACE corps member?  

A: My favorite thing about ACE was moving to a place completely different from where I was living in Pittsburgh. I felt like I was getting introduced to a whole new world. I had never even been on a camping trip before so everything about ACE and outdoor recreation was new to me. I loved meeting people with different hobbies and varying experience levels so some of us could experience firsts together while being guided by the more experienced crew members who were excited to share their knowledge. There is such a great community at ACE MTW. I really felt like I met “my people.” I think doing hard physical work and experiencing the outdoors together creates a unique bond. I know that I will always have those friendships that formed at ACE.

Q:  What is ACE MTW culture?  How do you feel you participated in that culture?

A: ACE MTW culture is about getting outside, trying new hobbies, and including as many people in them as you can. My boss in Zion asked me and another former ACEr on our crew why whenever he sees ACErs at a climbing spot there are always so many people. We explained that’s how ACE is, whenever someone says they are going out to do something everyone joins in. It is especially welcoming when you first move into the house in Hurricane. As soon as you are no longer the new person in the house you become one of the people inviting the new members out for a hike and making them feel welcome. I went on so many hikes and trips with so many different people while I was in ACE.

Q:  What was it like living in Hurricane, Utah?  Any favorite activities? Hikes? What did you do on your off days?

A: Living in Hurricane made me fall in love with the desert and I haven’t really left since I got here 3 years ago. There are so many places in the area to go hiking, backpacking, and climbing. The people I met in ACE introduced me to all of these activities and when I was a part of ACE we all spent every off day doing as much of them as we could. The views are also mind blowing. I love looking around and being able to see West Temple in Zion and the Pine Valley Mountains at the same time. Especially when they are covered in snow!

Q:  Did you have a favorite project?  Why?

A: One of my favorite projects was the Death Valley project that we would do in the winter. We had a small crew and worked directly with the project partner removing invasive species like palm trees and tamarisk. We went back for a few hitches so we got to spend a lot of time in the park and explore more than most people will ever see. That was also one of my first hitches after I got chainsaw trained and I was cutting palm trees in the desert. I think that’s a pretty once in a lifetime kind of experience.

Q:  In what ways did ACE shape your life personally and professionally?

A: Without exaggerating, I feel safe to say that ACE drastically changed my life. It took me in a whole new direction that I hadn’t even considered for myself. I studied Art Education when I was in college and the thought never crossed my mind that one day I would be working in Zion National Park as a Wildland FireFighter. I didn’t really even know what that job was. ACE opened up this world of seeing women work alongside men in a very physical job and excel at it. I met so many strong, impressive women that really inspired me and gave me the confidence to venture into a field that is very male dominated. Being surrounded by amazing women and sharing stories and experiences created a great environment for me to grow both at work and outside of it.

Q: How did you attain your positions as a wildland firefighter in Utah?

A: I actually had my first interaction with the Fire Crew I am currently on when I was a corpsmember at ACE. We did a fuels reduction hitch in Zion National Park and part of our daily routine was meeting with the Engine Captain and Assistant Engine Captain to ask them questions and learn about the Wildland Firefighting profession. That’s when I decided that I wanted to pursue a job in this field. After that, I tried to get on as many saw projects as I could and started applying to Wildland Fire jobs. I did not end up getting a fire job the first season I applied so I tried to get more experience and applied to an ACL position but was not selected. I then found a position on a saw crew at the UCC that helped me get all the basic Wildland Firefighting certifications. After my 6 month term there I was able to get an ACL job with ACE MTW where I continued to gain relevant job experience. The summer after that term was when I started my first fire season in Escalante. Now I work with people who were once my project partners in Zion. I was told by both of the people in charge of hiring me for my two fire seasons that my work experience at conservation corps was the main reason I was hired.

Q:  What are your responsibilities as a wildland firefighter with ZNP?

A: I am part of a 6-7 person engine crew in Zion. We are available to get sent to a fire in the whole color country area from the Arizona Strip up to Cedar City and all the way out to Escalante. Within our crew, our roles when we are on a fire change frequently. I’ve been the person spraying water from the hose, the sawyer, the swamper, and the person digging the fire line. I would say my main responsibility being a newer firefighter is to gain as much knowledge as I can about how to work on a crew, how to fight fire, and how to stay safe so that I can help teach and lead in the future.

Q:  How do you fill your time outside of Fire? What’s your favorite outdoor activity?

A: Although I haven’t had much time outside of fire this season, backpacking and climbing are my top two favorites. I am also hoping to get into trail running this off season.

Q:  What comes next?  What are your future goals?

A: Right now my goal is to work towards leadership qualifications within Wildland Fire. I hope to get my squad boss task book signed off in the next couple years. Another one of my goals is to recruit more women into Wildland Fire!

Q:  If a prospective corpsmember were to ask you what the benefits of joining ACE are, what would you say?  

A: There are so many benefits. I would say learning to work as a part of a crew and then learning how to lead a crew. I worked with a variety of leadership styles and was able to see how to be an effective leader for different groups of people. ACE is also a great way to network with potential future employers from land management agencies that are project partners. I know a few people, including myself, that have gotten jobs working for project partners from a hitch they were on. You can also get a feel for the different types of work that go into managing public lands. Trying out the types of work through hitches can help you decide what kind of outdoor work you are interested in. I also got to work in so many beautiful places. My appreciation for nature grew with every hitch that I went on. ACE is a great place for meeting friends with similar interests and then using your time off to explore with them.

Corps to Career – EPIC Edition

We are so proud to share this EPIC intern story. Katya Waters participated in two internships with the ACE EPIC program and is now continuing on her journey, transitioning to the career of her dreams with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as a Petroleum Engineering Technician in the Oklahoma Field Office. Congratulations Katya and thank you for sharing your story in your own words:

My time with ACE and the BLM began in Price, Utah during the summer of 2017. While there I worked as a Quarry Steward Intern and my daily duties included interacting with guests and occasionally leading guided tours. I was able to learn a lot about paleontology while working at the quarry and I got to spend my days off volunteering at the local museum where I researched many different paleontological topics for up-coming exhibits.

Last June I started to work as a Geology Intern for ACE and the BLM in the Las Vegas Field Office. My job included inspecting community pits that were in a pending status as well as inspecting tortoise fences that surrounded sand and gravel mines. I had the opportunity to shadow some of the full-time BLM employees, which included the geologists, the hydrologist, the botanist, the natural resource specialist, and a park ranger.

After completing the first 11 weeks of the internship I was able to extend my internship for an additional 11 weeks. During that time I spent 2 weeks in Winnemucca, Nevada, learning about the gold and silver mines as well as the geothermal plants that were located on BLM lands. I was also able to work more closely with the geologists in the Las Vegas office on preparing mining contracts and interacting more heavily with the sand and gravel miners.

I have recently accepted a position with the BLM as a Petroleum Engineering Technician in the Oklahoma Field Office and am looking forward to starting very soon!
I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity to work for ACE and the BLM for two summers in a row! During my time as an intern I learned a lot about the BLM and made many friends who I still keep in touch with!

Corps to Career – Kenneth De Jesus Graciani

We are so happy to be able to share another Corps to Career success story out of our ACE Puerto Rico program.
Former ACE Member Kenneth De Jesus Graciani worked as an ACE corps member from October 2015 – April 2016. Kenneth was able to take his experience and work ethic and transition to a position working for NPS at San Juan National Historic Site.
We sat down with Kenneth for a Q and A to find out about where he is with NPS, how he achieved his goal of working for an agency and how ACE was a small part of his journey.

kenneth-de-jesus-gracianiWhere are you from originally? I am from Arroyo, Puerto Rico.
What motivated you or inspired you to be in conservation? I wanted to get experience doing this kind of work. My father and Uncle both work in conservation for the National Park Service and so at a young age I was very interested in this type of work and I wanted to learn as much as I could.
How did you find out about ACE? My Uncle saw a flyer for the Conservation Corps at the NPS office and he told me about the opportunity.
What was your role with ACE? My role as a crew member with ACE was to carry out the daily projects that were assigned to us by NPS staff and our crew leaders. The work involved historic preservation, trail maintenance, new trail construction, and removing unwanted trees that were damaging the historic fortress.
kenneth-teamworkWhat was your favorite project and why? I loved the “outworks” trail project. It involved mixing cement and building a new network of trails for tourists to enjoy that were not there before. The work was very rewarding and both NPS staff and Park visitors were appreciative of our efforts.
What was one of your biggest challenges? When you have good training and leadership from NPS and ACE, all projects are possible and none were too challenging.
What was your favorite aspect of being an ACE corps member? Everything. I loved mixing concrete to building new trails. I learned new skills from the crew leaders that gave me the confidence to apply for an NPS job.
How did you attain the position with NPS? I attained this position by gaining skills, experience, and confidence with ACE and then applied to the NPS job at a time when they were hiring.
What are your job responsibilities with NPS? I am a maintenance worker for the National Park Service, San Juan Natl Historic Site. My main responsibilities include repairing historic structures, building concrete columns, welding, fencing, operating a circular saw and keeping up with maintenance of the park in a safe, efficient, manner. In the summer months I was the liaison between the NPS and the YCC crew.
Do you think ACE has helped prepare you for your future career? Definitely. ACE gave me the opportunity to work with them, learn new skills, gain valuable experience, and get exposure by working closely with NPS staff.
group-photoWhat are your future goals? I would like to continue learning as much as I can to grow and develop into a leader with the National Park Service. In 5 years I hope to be in a leadership position in the National Park Service. I would love to work with young adults and mentor them.
How has ACE helped to shape who you are personally and professionally? ACE helped me with everything. The crew leaders taught me technical skills, responsibility, leadership, and good work habits. I learned great teamwork. If it wasn’t for ACE, I would not be working with the National Park Service.
What advice can you offer to future corps members who are looking to get into the conservation field? Never say “no”. You need to be flexible and open to any type of work and any type of project. You need to be inspired to work for ACE and gain skills to have a good experience in ACE and be competitive for federal jobs.kenneth-prepping-for-new-trail

*If you are an ACE Alumni and are interested in sharing your Corps to Career story please contact Susie Jardine at