President Napolitano explores UC-Yosemite links

by Lorena Anderson, UC Merced and Kathleen M. Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

President Napolitano and students from UC Merced's Yosemite Leadership Program take a selfie. Image credit: Veronica Adrover/UC Merced
President Napolitano and students from UC Merced’s Yosemite Leadership Program take a selfie. Image credit: Veronica Adrover/UC Merced

A visit to Yosemite gave University of California President Janet Napolitano a close look at partnerships between UC and the national park, and a chance to meet students whose lives have been transformed by their experiences in a crown jewel of the National Park System.

“I have really been looking forward to this week,” President Napolitano told a group of Yosemite Leadership Program students, park officials and UC Merced leaders at a luncheon at the Yosemite Lodge on July 24. “I started my week at Los Alamos National Lab, and I’ll finish it in Yosemite. Getting a first-hand look at the fascinating research UC is engaged in, meeting so many dedicated and inspiring people — it doesn’t get too much better than that.”

The linchpin for UC programs in the park

UC operates the only university research facility in the park, Yosemite Field Station. The station is key to the success of University programs in the park. Based in the park’s Wawona district, the field station serves as home base to students participating in research and environmental leadership programs, and coordinates research conducted on the park and its ecosystems by UC students and faculty.

“UC’s field research stations are examples of how UC not only teaches for California, but researches for the world. Under the guidance of the university’s incredible faculty, students conducting research in Yosemite and other locations will be the world’s environmental leaders when they graduate,” Napolitano said.

Administered by UC Merced, Yosemite Field Station is one of 39 reserves in the UC Natural Reserve System. The NRS includes more than 756,000 acres of protected wildlands in all major California habitats, making it the largest university-administered reserve system in the world. Its lands used for environmental research, teaching in field methods and other subjects, and public service programs such as field trips by schoolchildren.

UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, left, and UC President Janet Napolitano Credit: Veronica Adrover/UC Merced
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, left, and UC President Janet Napolitano
Credit: Veronica Adrover/UC Merced

More than 50 people gathered for lunch in the park with Napolitano Thursday. Students from YLP and the Research Experience for Undergraduates Program ate with her and UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Charles Nies, Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher, Delaware North’s Dan Jensen, and Yosemite Conservancy President Mike Tollefson.

The students asked Napolitano about her professional background, future plans for the University of California and the challenges of leadership.

“You have to clearly communicate your vision to get people to buy in,” Napolitano told UC Merced alum Andres Estrada, who asked about leadership values. “You also have to have the courage of your convictions, and you need to be able to explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

Napolitano related some of her experiences as governor of Arizona and Homeland Security chief, and marveled at how much she has learned since taking the reins at the UC 10 months ago. She then introduced her new UC Global Food Initiative, which she launched to harness the collective power of UC to help put the world on a path to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself.

Yosemite program students speak

She also gleaned insights about the students during a series of presentations, hearing about the research being conducted during the summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program and the lessons being learned by students in YLP.  The Yosemite REU funds college students to work closely with scientists conducting research in the park. YLP provides UC Merced undergraduates the opportunity to live and work in a national park during a 12-week residential summer internship.

“These programs are building leaders, and I am one of them,” said Vera Reyes, a first-generation college student from Dos Palos. She was introduced to UC Merced through Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC), and was inspired to go to college by the YLP students she met during her time in that high school program. An environmental education program, ARC is based at Yosemite Field Station and also runs summer courses at the NRS’s Sagehen Creek Field Station.

Yosemite Superintendent Neubacher explained that the park’s 30-plus youth programs welcome about 45,000 young people each year. “For me, YLP is one of the highlights,” he said. “We have a lot to be proud of.”

Recent UC Merced graduate Jesus Dolores became emotional explaining his experience with YLP, saying the program gave him new confidence. “I found out I was a leader,” he said. “This is one of the greatest experiences of my life, being part of the partnership between UC Merced and Yosemite.” After graduation, Dolores dreaded choosing between working at Yosemite or his alma mater. In the end, he was able to blend the two: he now heads an effort to improve the propane-tank recycling program in Yosemite  for the UCM School of Engineering.

After lunch, Napolitano attended a poetry reading by this year’s Yosemite ARC students. Like the YLP students, most are from low-income immigrant families and have had little exposure to the outdoors and national parks.

During her time in the park, Napolitano also met with Leland and other campus leaders, heard a presentation from the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and took a guided hike with Leland through the park.

Jacob Croasdale, YLP coordinator on the UC Merced campus, said he was proud of the students who met with Napolitano and impressed by the positive energy of the event.

“Having President Napolitano’s partnership really invests a lot of confidence in what we’re doing,” he said.