SUNY-ESF Ranger School student Greg Axel-Lute recently finished his first semester for an Associate of Applied Science degree in land surveying technology.
“I had previously done some land surveying,” clarifies Axel-Lute. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental studies and a post-baccalaureate certificate in GIS under his belt. Yet, still, he explains, his career in land surveying failed to launch. “I worked for a couple different companies, but I wasn’t really getting anywhere.” Enrolling at the Ranger School last fall, he has finally (he hopes) arrived.
Located in Wanakena, New York, in the heart of the Adirondack Park’s six million–acre wilderness, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) Ranger School has come to be a natural choice for anyone looking to amplify their land surveying field skills.
“If you’re looking for a challenge in a school that is well regarded, Ranger School is definitely a place to go,” Axel-Lute says.
In addition to land surveying, the Ranger School also offers Applied Science degrees in forest technology, and in environmental and natural resources conservation. Local, state and federal roles as forest rangers, technicians, surveyors and other land stewards are common titles among graduates. However, the school is quick to note that it is a learning institution in the wilderness. Not about the wilderness. With a concentrated curriculum in GIS, ecology, boundary and topographic surveying concepts, the Ranger School holds the same demands of high academic achievement found at any university program. The major difference being an ever-evolving outside learning space.
Students can expect a minimum of 70 hours a week of evening and weekend study, daily classes, and laboratory/field exercises with short trips in between.
“Over the years, the school has garnered a reputation of producing skilled woodsmen and forest technicians, says recent graduate Steven Perez Gangi, a surveyor at BME Associates Civil Engineers & Land Surveyors in Rochester, New York. “The variety of potential offers and avenues that come with this great network of alumni are vast. Also, the opportunity to work in different states is a possibility as well. Just from my own class, several ended up in the western states, either working in a park or fighting wildfires. My own employment was secured shortly after the start of our second semester.”
Rich History, Close Community
The SUNY-ESF Ranger School was founded in 1912 on land donated to the State University of New York (SUNY) by the Rich Lumber Company, school director Mariann Johnston explains. She is the first woman to lead the Ranger School in the school's 100-year history.
“It was donated to the state forestry college to establish a school to educate young men — and that was the verbiage at the time — in forestry, and in the early days the program was a one calendar year program,” Johnston notes.
Those first students, who came to Wanakena by train and took a boat the rest of the way, lived in tents and actually built the building that stands on the 2,800-acre campus today. Although today’s students aren’t involved in erecting buildings, they are part of a unique and challenging program, which boasts relatively small classes.
“We tend to have around 20 percent women in the class at any given time,” Johnston says. “The surveying technology program typically averages between four and eight students, which means they are going to get a higher ratio of attention as well.”
Aside from small class sizes, the overall learning experience is quite unique for students and instructors.
“We are very unique in the respect that most people think of college in that they go to classes maybe one or two days a week, off and on. There’s a lot of at-home learning, things like that,” says Jeremy Thompson, surveying instructor and 1997 Ranger School graduate.
However, that’s not the case at the Ranger School. Students are typically required to live on campus in the same building, which houses everything from classrooms, dining halls to recreation rooms and more. Living and learning in one place builds comradery among the students, Thompson says.
But it extends beyond the students, says Mike Pink, a 2020 graduate. “All the professors and the staff — even the cafeteria ladies, to be honest — everybody took an interest in us. They really formatted their lives around our success.”
Axel-Lute agrees, particularly noting that one of his professors has gone above and beyond to accommodate his struggles with reading and spelling in order to ensure his success in the program.
Unique Land Surveying Education
All three of the Ranger School’s degree programs share the same classes during the fall semester, but students focus on their specialized programs during the spring semester.
Class is in session from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The lecture component is typically conducted in the morning, followed by field or lab exercises.
“Our program really provides an in-depth exposure to the land surveying profession where our graduates will be employable,” says Thompson. “They will be able to walk directly out into the field and be successful as a field technician. They are going to get exposure to modern surveying practices and equipment.”
That field experience is key to the opportunity to apply what is learned in the classroom out in the field, which is something that stood out to recent graduate, Pink.
“I liked how it had a hands-on, outdoor experience, so everything I learned in class, I was able to go later that day or the next day outside [to do] it,” he says.
There’s no doubt that the program can be challenging. Aside from the daily schedule, students are still required to complete assignments and study, so it can make their already long days feel longer. However, it is worth the hard work.
“I think most people are kind of nervous about the fact that it’s 44 credit hours for the whole year, so it’s 22 credit hours a semester. But if you make it through that, you can be rest assured that you can accomplish pretty much anything in your life, I think,” Pink says. “It’s a good reward or badge to keep on you.”