BALTIMORE — Growing up in the city, Tia Solomon's friends from her hometown of Philadelphia didn't really know what park rangers do, so there were more than a few snickers when the 20-year-old sophomore said she had become one.
Her assignment: keeping watch over the front gate of Baltimore's historic Fort McHenry. The Temple University sophomore and musician who has mastered the viola and violin is part of a federal program that recruits students to guard historic sites.
Solomon said her friends "only think a park ranger is out chasing squirrels and riding a horse," but she was eager to sign up.
The National Park Service, facing a shortage of rangers, sought out Temple students to stand guard over the sites where U.S. history was made, such as Fort McHenry that protected Baltimore after the British burned Washington in the War of 1812. When the British attacked Baltimore, the battle the inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words that would become the national anthem.
The four-year, paid internship program is called ProRanger Philadelphia. Temple students are also law enforcment rangers at the early English settlements in Virginia, the place where the Declaration of Independence was written in Philadelphia and at major battlefields of the Civil War, among other spots.
The internships are not permanent. Students can drop out at any time, but if they complete more training, they are fast-tracked to full ranger status. Solomon was drawn to the program during her freshman year because she wanted a realistic career path after spending many years focused on music.
"It's a big change," said Solomon, dressed in her full green and gray National Park Service uniform and ranger hat. "I'm in it for the long run. I really love law enforcement. I love helping people, and I love interacting with people."
The park service has high turnover at urban sites because many recruits would rather move on to western parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. Officials in the Northeast also faced the daunting realization that more than half their law enforcement rangers must quit in the next five years because of a mandatory retirement age of 57.
So overseers of parks from Maine to Virginia spent the past three years building a program with Temple to get a new crop of rangers. A similar program has begun in San Antonio for western parks.
The first internship is followed with specialized classes, internships at different parks and eventually weeks at a federal law enforcement academy that will include firearms training. Each year, 12 new students will enter the program.
Rangers do a variety of tasks from investigating vandalism to directing traffic, issuing tickets and providing first aid. And some threats are more serious. On Memorial Day, a woman came to Fort McHenry with a knife, looking for the president.
Such federal jobs are hard to come by. Even a laid-off state trooper could have trouble getting hired, despite the staffing needs, because of the federal hiring process, said Stephen Clark, the law enforcement chief for the Northeast regional parks who created the intern program.
"These students, I don't think they understand the gift that has been given them," Clark said. "They're going to earn it, but here are these students coming out of college with a job opportunity ... making a very nice wage with enhanced retirement."
If all goes as planned, Solomon will be guaranteed a job as a law enforcement park ranger, a career that pays federal benefits and a salary from $33,000 up to $65,000 after years of service, depending on the location.
Temple was chosen for its nationally ranked criminal justice program and for its diversity, officials said. In the Northeast, more than 80 percent of rangers are white, and recruiting from a diverse, urban school means many students want to live in cities. Other schools could follow.
Students don't have to be justice majors to apply. The interns also can spend time working as interpreters and on maintenance and preservation projects. The also help manage large-scale events, such as first lady Michelle Obama's visit to Fort McHenry last month with her daughters — and even an Aryan Nations rally this summer with counter-protesters at the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield.
For Owen McDaniel, 22, who recently graduated with a history degree, the internship meant steady employment when other graduates are struggling in the job market.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a park ranger, but it seemed like such an unrealistic thing to be," he said.
Now as Fort McHenry intern, he can use his history degree to help protect and explain the historic site.
"You can just kind of paint the picture of the battle," McDaniel said. "You can see where the British ships were coming in. You can see where they were bombarding. It really gets the visitors excited."
Online: ProRanger Philadelphia Blog: http://prorangerphila.blogspot.com