Erik Olstad was a political science major attending school in Fresno when he had an accident that changed his life.
While snowboarding in 2004, he fell and sustained a debilitating back injury. The accident left him with compressed vertebrae and bedridden for three weeks. When he was finally able to walk, traveling even a few feet was painful and exhausting.
He moved back home to Merced so his parents could help during his recovery. Unable to drive, he needed his father to shuttle him back and forth from Merced to Fresno three times a week so he could attend classes.
The experience, he said, prompted him to do some soul searching.
"After all that," he said, "I realized political science wasn't for me. I hated what I was doing."
He took to heart advice he'd heard time and again: Do what you love. When he thought about what he loved, the answer came quickly: Working with animals. That epiphany started a chain of events, which included applying to UC Merced.
Fast forward to 2009: Olstad will graduate in May with a master's degree in environmental systems . He is also the university's first student to be accepted to veterinary school. Next semester, Olstad will attend UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine, one of the top veterinary schools in the United States.
Olstad said the accident forced him to examine his priorities. After he was accepted at UC Merced, he got more serious about studying. He saw his grades improve compared to what they were in Fresno.
He also started doing more work with animals, a passion he inherited from his mom. He remembers nursing sick birds and other small animals back to health.
To better prepare for his field, Olstad worked a variety of jobs involving animals and their care. He's done everything from cleaning cages as a kennel assistant to helping out during dental and surgical procedures. He's worked with everything from chickens to chinchillas, rare snakes and other exotic pets.
No job was beneath him. "I was the guy that did everything no one else wanted to do," he said.
He even landed a job at Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, where he helped care for horses, some worth millions of dollars.
Olstad said that his experience at UC Merced enriched his life in many different ways. Coming here "changed everything. I've gotten to know and work with the professors here. I did research as an undergraduate and got to help do some writing and experiments."
His advice to other students? Learn to balance school responsibilities and fun.
"You just can't party all the time," he said. "You have to have balance. Take advantage of where you are -- at UC Merced. We have great teachers here. It's a privilege just to be in college."
Olstad added that his accident didn't diminish his love of snowboarding. In fact, he founded UC Merced's Ski & Snowboarding Club and still hits the slopes - when he has the time.
"It's still fun," he said, "and it helps relieve stress."