OHIO Chillicothe graduate Susan Knisley leads, educates at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
On a cool, windy day in October, Susan Knisley stood proudly looking out over the visiting dignitaries and guests who had gathered at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (HCNHP). They, along with Knisley and her colleagues, were celebrating the park’s new designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Mound City Group, the only fully restored Hopewell earthwork complex.
Knisley, chief of interpretation, education and outreach at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, did not set out to become a park ranger, but her educational journey led her to wear the National Park Service uniform proudly as one of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park’s most passionate advocates and educators.
Knisley started her college education at Ohio University Chillicothe after moving to the region and eventually earned her Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Ohio State University.
“I went to Ohio University Chillicothe right out of high school and got as much credit as I could," Knisley said. “I knew when I graduated from high school, I wanted to be an anthropologist. I didn't know exactly which field. I was interested in all of it."
Being a transplant from Florida, she never had the experience that most people who grow up in Ross County have of touring the earthworks as part of a fourth-grade field trip. Once her anthropology classmates and professor encouraged her to visit the Mound City earthworks, that first visit helped spark a curiosity and passion for the place that laid the foundation for her career.
"My first experience with the park itself was a volunteer opportunity,” Knisley recalls. She joined the archeology field crew led by Dr. Brett Ruby and spent several weeks during the summer working at Hopeton Earthworks.
It took a few more years, more conversations with people connected to Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and a little encouragement from her husband for Knisley to find her way back to the earthworks as a seasonal interpretive park ranger.
“I really didn't have a good understanding of the National Park Service. And I still had no real understanding of what all these earthworks sites were,” Knisley said. Within two weeks of starting her new role at HCNHP, Knisley had to be ready to lead a tour of fourth graders.
That experience was transformative for Knisley. She discovered her love for sharing the history and archaeology of the Hopewell Culture with the public. The history of the earthworks fascinated her, and she realized that there were many local students who, like her, were unaware of the historical treasure in their own backyard. She immediately began revising the park’s educational curriculum and collaborating with Ross County educators. Her passion for telling the community about the amazing earthworks in their neighborhood led her to pursue a second degree, this time an education degree at Ohio University Chillicothe.
“I knew that Ohio University Chillicothe had a fantastic program because I had also been leading teacher of workshops here (at HCNHP) and we did that through OHIO Chillicothe, so I was starting to meet more instructors as well as students,” Knisley said.
In 2013, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Middle Childhood Education and became the park’s first education technician. The experiences and perspectives Knisley gained through her education degree helped her see the park through a different lens and equipped her to develop educational programming that met the needs of teachers, students, and the park.
"I became more authentic with what I had to offer to the schools around us," Knisley said. "I had walked in their shoes, sat in their faculty rooms, talked to them, and watched what was going on with the instruction. I soaked up everything I could."
During her 23 years at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Knisley has developed numerous educational programs, including field trips for students, and worked closely with teachers to make the history of the earthworks relevant to their curriculum.
"I'm with the students for at most two or three hours," she notes. "You do not know what's going to walk off that bus or what happened at the school prior to their visit to us. It's a lot of fun."
In her current role as chief of interpretation, education and outreach at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, she has become involved in outreach efforts with tribal partners. Knisley is deeply involved in collaborating with Native American tribes to tell their stories and histories as part of the park's mission.
"I'm getting my staff involved in that, and we can't wait to do more," Knisley said. "We have a lot of opportunities here for our partners to tell their stories with the public."
Knisley manages a team of four permanent park rangers, staff and interns. One of those interns is Meagan Adams, an anthropology major at Ohio University Chillicothe, who was selected for the Bruce Lombardo Internship at HCNHP this year. Knisley takes pride in mentoring her team and watching them develop and lead their own educational programs.
"Whenever I walk in and see stuff that they've created because I've given them the tools and just stepped away and allowed it, that's cool. That really jazzes me up," Knisley said.
She enjoys working with interns and helping college students as they navigate the decisions and challenges she herself faced as a student charting a path that would serve her interests and passions and allow her to serve others. Knisley encourages students and aspiring park rangers to embrace volunteer opportunities as they explore career options and get their foot in the door.
“If you're still trying to figure things out and you're not sure what you want to do, think about volunteering, and see what kind of opportunities there are,” Knisley said. “Ask questions! If outdoor education, a naturalist job, or a park ranger job is something that you are interested in, get to know the different types of work that we do. And make the best of the courses that are related to what your future job is going to be.”
Knisley's journey, from a volunteer to the chief of interpretation, is an inspiring example of how passion, education and dedication can lead to a lifelong career in sharing the stories and history of a remarkable cultural heritage site like the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. Her legacy is not only in the programs she has developed but also in the young minds she has inspired, and the connections she has forged between the past and the present.