Have you, just like me, visited National Parks in the United States and wondered what it’s like to work as a ranger? Well, why don’t you go and find out? It’ll take some time and effort to get there, but I can assure you, it’s all worth it. This is an overview of the path that I’ve followed to become an International Volunteer In Parks (IVIP) in the United States of America.
Let me break down all the steps that I took.
1 Program application
After a while of searching the internet and asking myself if I really wanted to do this, I took the step of filling out the application form on August 5th 2016 and send it to the IVIP coordinator. The website states that the coordinator needs about 15 workdays to reply to emails. As I found out later she is quite busy and it’s easier to reach her by phone than by email.
When the 15 days had more or less passed I decided to phone her to find out if she had received my email and had all the information required. She took advantage of this opportunity to interview me about my motivation for doing this. At the end of the phone call she told me that I was a good candidate for the IVIP program. This was directly followed with an email with a lot of information on what to expect and what to do. When you receive this confirmation it means that the coordinator will be your sponsor for a J-1 visa which is required for volunteering.
2 Finding a cool position
The next step is to start looking for a position in a park on the volunteer positions website (https://www.volunteer.gov/). It’s important to only look into positions offered by the National Park Service. Since I want to become a guide I filtered my searches for guide/interpretation, the results were numerous, but many options were not suited for me. I applied online for the positions that I really liked and sent an email to the person responsible for the position. The online form doesn’t offer much space to explain why you want to do this. However the form is used to make a first selection. Be as positive as you can in the form, since selection doesn’t go straight to the person hiring. They rank you and the highest ranked will be evaluated first, so you would want to be as high up as possible. In the email there is enough space to explain why you are interested in the position.
It is important that you come across as highly motivated because the person responsible for hiring you has to do more for you as an international volunteer than for a “regular” American volunteer.
Add your CV or resume to the email so they can take a look at your background. I also added a link to my website and referred to my outdoor resume there, since the positions would be outdoorsy. I encourage you to check out the website regularly and apply for any position you are interested in. I applied for about 10 positions. On some I got a quick reply that they’d received my application and forwarded to the person in charge for the selection, on others I never heard back from them, and on a few I received a few quick no’s.
The first positive response I got was from Voyageurs NP on the 7th of October 2016 for which, I applied on the 19th of August. As you can see, you need patience throughout the entire process. After I got that positive response we emailed back and forth quite a bit. I’ve had an interview over the phone, and then a lot of more emailing about all the difficult things that have to be done before I can actually be out there.
3 Accepting an offer
Once you get the official offer for the voluntary position and you accept it (I accepted on the 20th of November 2016), it’s time to get back in touch with the IVIP coordinator. The coordinator will then send you the information that you need to get your visa at the American embassy in your country. You will need to purchase an insurance plan for the time that you are staying there.
4 J-1 visa
The position in Voyageurs started at beginning of April 2017 and ended at the end of September. A J-1 visa has a maximum duration of one year, with 30 days in advance and 30 days after, this gives you enough time to travel to and from your destination and do other things you might have to arrange before you start your volunteering job. Since I want to learn as much as possible, I plan to do another voluntary job in another park after completing the one in Voyageurs. The J-1 visa can be extended (up to the one year) at any time before ending the program. Ask around when future positions will open up so you know when to look for interesting openings. It’s also important to realize that you have to return to your home country for at least two years after the program ends.
5 Visa process
The IVIP coordinator sends you the J-1 visa certificate, also called a DS:2019 form, by express mail. She will also send you an email with a SEVIS number that you’ll need for the visa application. I received the visa certificate on the 16th of January 2017.
Step one is to fill out the electronic form DS:160. Make sure you have enough time to fill out the form, it took me 1 to 1,5 hours to complete it. It is possible to save and continue later. There is also an online guide that can help you when filling out the form.
Once you’ve filled out the form you can make an appointment at the American embassy in your home country. You’ll need the number of your DS:160 form to make the appointment. I also had to pay for the visa before the appointment date.
At the appointment you’ll need the DS:2019 form, your passport, the confirmation page of your DS:160 form, a recent picture of yourself (make sure it is the right size and new enough, they were very fussy about it) and the appointment confirmation. They will evaluate your documents and interview you. Once they agree on your visa you’re ready to leave and after a few days they’ll return you your passport with the visa. I had my appointment on the 31st of January and by the 2nd of February my passport was returned by mail.
6 Arriving in the States
Finally, on the 1st of March 2017 the day came that I boarded a plane to come to the US. My flight took forever since I wanted to fly cheap and had a very specific destination. The first US airport you arrive in will be the place where you go through customs. Mine was Newark (New York). There you need to present your passport with visa, the DS:2019 form and a form that you get in the airplane (needs to be filled out). Make sure you have the address of where you will be staying, as it’s a frequently asked question.
If you have a connecting flight, make sure you have enough time. The line before customs can be very long and waiting time can easily be over an hour. For me everything went amazingly smooth. All the paperwork was in order, I had fingerprints taken and in the end I was rewarded with that amazing stamp on my visa. I was accepted into the country.
From that point on I had more flights. At my final destination I was picked up by family which was really comforting after such a long flight. In the first days that followed I made sure I had an American phone number, started looking for a car (since Voyageurs NP is so remote) and bought more things that are needed for my time there.
7 Social Security number
Because I will be working at Voyageurs for more than 120 days I’ll need a Social Security Number (SSN), so I’m told. Also, a background check can be performed more easily when you have a SSN. The document about the SSN for non-citizens says that you’ll need to wait 10 days before going to the office. I went there on the 13th of March 2017. You’ll need to present your passport with visa, the application form, DS:2019 form and a letter from the IVIP coordinator with an explanation on why you would need a SSN. It’ll take about 15 minutes for the clerk to process your documents. Once that’s done they’ll send the card in the mail when it’s ready. Mine came in on the 18th of March.
8 Background check
The background check seemed to become the most complicated part of the whole procedure, with a bunch of forms that had to be filled out. This seems to have changed during my process. I only had to send a scan of the DS:2019 form to the Personnel Security Specialist of the NPS once it was stamped by the American Embassy in Amsterdam. Once they had that, combined with me entering the country, the first part of the background check was already complete.
After that I went to an USAccess Credentialing Center to have my fingerprints and a picture taken for a PIV card that I’ll needed to work on government computers. You make an appointment online, the appointment is for 15 minutes for the fingerprints and picture. In the Credentialing Center you’ll need to identify yourself with two means of identification. The two means of identification are two different types of ID. First line ID is almost always a passport as a foreigner. Second line ID can be a birth certificate or a SSN. These are the options you have as a foreigner, US citizens have a lot more options.
The last part of the background check is a very long one, and from what I’ve understood can take several years. The info that I had to provide was where I’d been living for the past five years. I was happy that I prepared this information before I came out here, because information was requested suddenly and was urgent. So I could provide this rather quickly. The information I provided was from when to when I lived in a certain place. The full address there including postal code, and the name and address of a person who knew me there.
I have no idea if I’ll ever hear anything about the last bit of the background check.
9 Extending the visa
Extending your stay is way easier than getting a volunteer position and visa in the first place. Since you’re already in the country other parks find it easier to hire you. They are not responsible for background checks and the likes. I started to apply to other positions in May and June, which was enough time to get hired and extended. Once I found a new position in White Sands National Monument I send an email to the IVIP coordinator, she told me that the my new supervisor needed to get in touch with her so several forms could be filled out.
Once the J-1 Visa is extended the new form will be send in the mail to you.
A full year in two very different parks was one of the best experiences of my life. My last day in the Park Service was on February 28th 2018. I had great colleagues I worked with, and learned so much. If I could I would go back to work in some more parks.
Basic info on becoming an IVIP – https://www.nps.gov/subjects/internationalcooperation/ivip.htm
Steps of becoming an IVIP – https://www.nps.gov/subjects/internationalcooperation/ivip_steps.htm
Contact information Office of International Affairs – https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1955/contactus.htm
Facebook page dedicated to IVIP’s – https://www.facebook.com/groups/673708732685507/
Volunteer positions – https://www.volunteer.gov/
Information on J-1 visa – https://j1visa.state.gov/
DS:160 form – https://ceac.state.gov/genniv/
Guide for DS:160 form – http://www.immihelp.com/visas/ds-160-form/
Social Security Number for non-citizens – https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10096.pdf
Social Security application form – https://www.ssa.gov/forms/ss-5.pdf
Social Security Office Locator – https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp
USAccess Credentialing Center – http://www.fedidcard.gov/credappointments.aspx
Find Credentialing Center – http://www.fedidcard.gov/centerlocator.aspx
Ways of identifying for Credentialing Center – http://www.fedidcard.gov/viewdoc.aspx?id=109