Project overview: Educate and inspire new environmental leaders through UC Merced–affiliated programs: an on-campus Wilderness Education Center, a two-year academic program, and summer internships.

How your support helps: National parks need the next generation of engaged supporters, advocates, and leaders — and champions who reflect the nation’s diverse population. In partnership with the University of California, Merced, the park is working to educate, inspire, and ultimately, employ new public lands leaders. Many UC Merced students come from populations that, historically, have been underserved by Yosemite and other parks; more than 70% are first-generation college students.

Three interconnected programs help link the park, UC Merced, and neighboring communities, while shaping the next generation of environmental leaders: 

  • Student rangers based at the on-campus UC Merced Wilderness Education Center (WEC) help their community connect with Yosemite through educational resources, field trips, and stewardship projects. They also lead activities for thousands of local schoolchildren through the National Park Foundation’s Open OutDoors for Kids initiative. 
  • The academic-year Yosemite Leadership Program encourages undergraduates to become lifelong stewards through four semesters of environmental studies, personal and professional development, and hands-on projects. 
  • Through Yosemite Leadership Program (YLP) summer internships, college students spend 12 weeks working with professionals in the park, where they receive on-the-job training and complete projects that benefit Yosemite. This highly regarded program serves as a pathway to public lands careers for students who otherwise might not have the chance to visit or work in a national park.

Our donors have supported UC Merced–based programs since the early 2000s. With that steady investment, WEC staff has grown from one person to two full-time employees and up to 10 part-time student rangers. YLP, which began as a loose collection of experiences, has evolved into a cohesive 64-week curriculum. And the summer internship, which grew out of an early Yosemite Association program, has expanded to serve more students and has earned “Direct-Hire Authority” status, which facilitates graduates’ access to NPS jobs.

These programs have widespread, long-lasting impacts. They provide invaluable experiences for dozens of UC Merced students each year, and more than 5,000 Merced-area fourth graders have learned about Yosemite and the environment with WEC rangers. YLP students mentor participants in other Conservancy-supported youth programs. WEC rangers — who are often YLP internship alumni — explore careers while working in summer positions in Yosemite. Program graduates follow paths to full-time roles with the National Park Service and other public agencies. In Yosemite, you might run into former YLP and WEC students delivering educational programs, protecting visitors and resources, coordinating art workshops, and more.

This year: When the pandemic made its way to California in 2020, the YLP/WEC programs quickly adapted to ensure students could keep learning together safely. In 2022, program leaders hope to be able to connect with students in person throughout the year, both on campus and in the park, but they’re also ready to offer engaging classes and activities online, if needed. Either way, your help will ensure these UC Merced programs — the two-year curriculum, summer internship and WEC — continue to give undergraduates access to coursework, outdoor experiences, and on-the-job training that will help them excel as future public lands leaders.

Learn more about the Yosemite Leadership Program and Wilderness Education Center on the UC Merced website.

Project partners: Yosemite National Park; University of California, Merced; and Merced City Schools

Jesse Chakrin and Laura Goforth

Wilderness and Education Branches, Yosemite National Park

Project Notes

“These programs work in concert to create skilled, ethical, innovative and intentional leaders for parks, public lands, and the environment.”