Finding a Future in Yosemite
Finding a Future in Yosemite
Will Fassett, associate director of Adventure Risk Challenge, shares the story of a student who found her passion for public lands through donor-supported youth programs in Yosemite.
Vannaleze (Vanna) Barcelos, a 19-year-old freshman at University of California, Merced, has a deep connection to Yosemite. For her, the park is an awe-inspiring and formative place that has helped her discover passions for the natural world, art and education, thanks in part to her experiences in two Yosemite Conservancy-supported programs: Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC) and the Yosemite Leadership Program (YLP).
Vanna grew up in the heart of California’s Central Valley, about 65 miles from Yosemite. Despite her proximity to the park, she didn’t feel connected to it: “Yosemite wasn’t emphasized in my community,” she says. “I didn’t realize how well-known it was throughout the world.”
When she was a junior in high school, Vanna applied for ARC’s 40-day summer course, which combines English education with backpacking and other outdoor activities. Growing up in Merced, she says, she felt as though there was little room for her to grow; through ARC, she hoped to experience a new adventure and spend some time outside of her hometown.
She accomplished her adventure goal, and then some! During the course, Vanna backpacked more than 60 miles in Yosemite’s high country; wrote a reflective poem called “I am the Merced River”; taught Merced Boys and Girls Club students about Sierra Nevada ecology; and learned to navigate the wilderness on her own.
Reflecting on her ARC experience two years later, Vanna says that the summer course had a huge influence on her. Before the course, she struggled to share her feelings, even with loved ones; after just eight days of backpacking, she felt comfortable opening up to her 11 ARC teammates.
“I grew tremendously in my communication skills, both in writing and with friends and family,” she recalls. “The experience revealed who I truly was.”
The ARC summer course also inspired Vanna to apply to UC Merced, and to the school’s two-year Yosemite Leadership Program. During one of her ARC backpacking trips, she and her teammates ascended Mount Watkins. Two YLP summer interns joined the group at the summit to lead a discussion about Yosemite’s ecology. Vanna remembers being struck by seeing the two UC Merced students in National Park Service uniforms — and by how much the YLP interns were enjoying themselves. Wow! she thought. This opportunity is available to me, too!
Two years after that experience, Vanna is wrapping up her first year at UC Merced, where she is studying global arts and participating in the on-campus YLP course. As a YLP student, Vanna has access to leadership training, career guidance, environmental education, and nature-based experiences, all steeped in a strong conservation ethic. Through YLP, she’s also learned a lot about Yosemite, and has gotten an in-depth look at diverse career opportunities in the park.
Vanna’s experiences with YLP and ARC helped her move beyond the social and emotional challenges of high school, open up to new adventures and conversations, and envision a new direction for her life. “In Yosemite,” she says, “I saw a future that I could picture myself in” — one that combines her love for the arts with her passion for the park.
This summer, she will have the chance to continue shaping that future while helping students connect with art and nature in Yosemite Valley. When the spring semester wraps up, she’ll head to back to the park to complete a YLP summer internship. She’ll be working with the Conservancy’s art team at Happy Isles Art and Nature Center, teaching art classes to elementary school students and developing new creative lessons tailored to young visitors.
Just a few years after ARC and YLP sparked Vanna’s personal passion for Yosemite, she has the chance to share that energy with a new generation of visitors. This is a story we hear time and again about the youth programs our donors fund in the park: Their benefits often extend well beyond the margins of a camping trip or summer course. Participants bring their enthusiasm and experiences to their communities and classrooms. Students learn to appreciate and steward the natural world, and share their new knowledge and skills with peers and family; alumni are often inspired (and equipped) to explore careers in conservation, environmental education, public lands management, and related fields.
We can't wait to welcome Vanna to Happy Isles, and to see the difference she makes for her art students this summer. In the meantime, thank you for making a difference in Yosemite — and well beyond — by supporting programs that transform young lives!