This past summer, Jessica Rivas served as an intern for Adventure Risk Challenge’s summer immersion course, and strong connections were made between her and our high school youth. Prior to starting college she had no idea backpacking even existed. Then she discovered the Yosemite Leadership Program at UC Merced, and began the journey that led her to call the wilderness her second home.
Jessica was raised in a Spanish-speaking home in North Hollywood where, she says, “the buildings shine brighter than the stars and walking up four flights of stairs is the equivalent to walking up a hill in the backcountry.”
In the YLP program, participants learn about leadership their first year, meet actual leaders during their summer internship and apply what they’ve learned by creating a capstone project on their final year in the program.
Last year, tutoring a group of ARC participants in the Learning Skills course at Merced High School while studying Cognitive Science and working as a Wilderness Ranger, Jessica developed her capstone project, where she led a group of students to discover the Yosemite wilderness and helped them understand the abstract science concepts in their textbooks.
During her ARC summer internship, Jessica discovered, “Like many of the ARC students I was relatively new to outdoor recreation. The highlight of my summer was realizing that my weaknesses in the outdoors were actually strengths in the eyes of the participants. I wasn’t the fastest runner or the highest climber, but that didn’t matter because we experienced these challenges together and it became clear that it wasn’t about making it to the top of the mountain but making it further than we thought we could.”
She added: “I began to understand how to empower individuals by just loving them. To know that ARC honors compassion enough to make it a core value made it clear to me that the world can be changed with love and that students respond positively to that. In my opinion ARC students enjoyed my presence as a college student because I could relate to their challenges. I wasn’t just a person who was close to their age, I was a person who struggled with them, cried with them, laughed and learned alongside them. They trusted me because I failed too. One student told me that she looked up to me because I had been through a lot and yet laughed harder than anyone she knew. They knew my story and understood that if I could make it in this day and age, so could they.”
As a result of her experiences working with youth in the outdoors, Jessica’s passion is to research the ways wilderness affects the brain, specifically to understand what chemicals are released in the brain when people are exposed to wilderness stimulus for copious amounts of time.
In Jessica’s words, “Being involved with YLP, furthering my education at UC Merced and working with ARC, have been invaluable contributions to what I want to study and realizing what truly makes me happy. My dreams have changed throughout the years, and something time has taught me is that you can never really predict where it’s going to take you, but as long as you keep an open mind and make the best out of the situations you find yourself in, life has a way of figuring itself out.”