UC Merced sits in an ideal spot for students, faculty and staff who want to engage in an active, outdoor lifestyle. The Outdoor Experience Program (OEP) capitalizes on UC Merced’s location with its rapidly growing menu of excursions to destinations like Zion National Park, Big Sur, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco Bay and Joshua Tree National Monument.
OEP staff members have consistently found increasing demand for the program’s offerings; participation this year is up by 30 percent.
“We’ve had to start increasing the number of trips in order to meet the demand of a bigger student population,” said OEP student coordinator Silvia Villalobos, a sophomore from the San Fernando Valley studying biology. “Also, offering a variety of trips has led to the participation of people with many different interests.”
Students, faculty, staff and community members of all levels of physical ability can participate in OEP trips by signing up at the front desk of the Joseph Edward Gallo Recreation and Wellness Center. Costs vary, but the adventures are offered at bargain prices — for example, this year’s Utah trip for spring break cost only $150 and included food, transportation, equipment and fees.
Equipment rental — like tents and sleeping bags — is available at the front desk of the Recreation and Wellness Center for OEP trips or for independent adventures. The current expansion of the center will make this aspect of the program even better.
“By this August, we should have our Outdoor Center open,” Villalobos said. “That will give students easier access to the equipment that we rent out.”
Most of the year, Villalobos spends time on weekdays preparing for that weekend’s trip — that’s the hard part, she said.
“Once that’s accomplished, I get a weekend of adventure,” she said. “It doesn’t even feel like work.”
She also appreciates being part of something that makes a difference for fellow UC Merced students.
“It’s important for them to find an outlet for stress and get away from the hectic college life,” Villalobos said. “The great outdoors gives them a sense of place and value. These places definitely inspire people.”
Before her freshman year at UC Merced, Villalobos participated in the OEP’s Week of Wilderness, which lets new students create friendships on an exciting backpacking adventure. It led to her current job with the program. Students also use Week of Wilderness as a gateway to other opportunities, like the Yosemite Leadership Program.
Regardless of where their experiences take them, participants learn key lessons while they’re out with OEP, especially leadership skills, environmental stewardship principles and “Leave No Trace” guidelines for interacting with nature.
And their safety is well guarded.
“Most of our staff is now Wilderness First Responder certified, which provides us with crucial knowledge and tools to make critical medical decisions in remote areas,” Villalobos said.
Prospective adventurers can find information about upcoming trips like rafting on the American River and kayaking in the San Francisco Bay online.