Taking a Walk on the Wild Side

College can open up many doors for people, some anticipated and some wholly unexpected.

Growing up in the Los Angeles area, attending University of California, Merced was a stretch for Jessica Rivas. “It was initially challenging to be away from everything I was familiar with and the people I loved. I didn’t realize how much maturity and self awareness I lacked.”

Though it was an adjustment, Jessica thrived. “I really enjoyed the independence and autonomy and the exposure to things I never had the chance to experience growing up.”

Encountering the Wilderness

Very early on, she stumbled upon a flyer for the Yosemite Leadership Program (YLP). “I had no substantial relationship to the outdoors,” said Jessica. “I had no concept of Wilderness or what National Parks protected. I did not have access when I was younger.”

But with her father’s encouragement, she decided to participate in the program. There, she found her passion and an unexpected path for her life.

According to its website, YLP is “leadership development that educates and inspires environmental advocacy and social change through skilled, ethical, innovative and intentional action, while respecting cultural heritage and community.”

Through the two-year program, Jessica was introduced to Yosemite National Park and the Wilderness. She experienced snow for the first time. She met mentors who cared about her, and helped her work through problems with financial aid so she could continue her education. They continue to support her development. YLP “gives people the safety and support to fail and learn.”

Giving Back

Jessica continued her involvement with YLP and Yosemite National Park in college, and after her graduation from UC Merced, she became a Wilderness Ranger working at Yosemite. As a Latina, she recognizes that she can play an important role in helping connect Latinx students with National Parks and the wilderness, and can impact the way the National Park Service serves her community.

“College has provided me a seat at the table where decisions about my community are made. I have opportunities to actually address issues that impact youth and minorities in parks. I feel it’s my duty as a minority to do what I can to make positive impacts in those communities.

I want to see more Latinos and Latinas out here. I want to see a reflection of our country in Parks and Academia. We have the power to create real changes in our communities. Changes can be addressed from those who know first hand of the struggles they face.”

Jessica wants other first gen students of color to learn from her experiences. “I want first gen students to know that these places belong to them, and that national parks are badass. They are places you can play in and pray in. Places that offer solitude if one seeks it, or connection to millions of different kinds of people if one so chooses.

I want them to know that there are programs that exist that support them through their immersion in Wilderness and offer gear and guidance through their experience. Wilderness is painted as a really scary and uncomfortable experience, I get it. But it’s honestly provided me with some of the most cherished lessons about what I am capable of. I hope they all get a chance to visit these places and feel the love and acceptance I have felt here. I hope they feel at home and empowered to protect these places.”

Going to college as a first gen college student has made a world of difference in Jessica’s life. She encourages other first gens to take the leap and take advantage of all that college has to offer. “If you give yourself permission to have your life changed and you seek out these opportunities, there is no doubt it will happen.”

A colleague of mine and former high school teacher of Jessica’s posted this Park Champions video of Jessica and her work at Yosemite National Park. I was so inspired, I knew I need to connect with Jessica. I am so glad that I did. Please check it out.

#FirstGenCollege #Yosemite #UCMercedVisit #NationalParkService

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Shifra Teitelbaum, EdD | shifra@firstgencollege.me  |  (323) 393-0806              

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