But a year after her arrival, while searching for internships so she could put her education and skills to work, she felt a little lost.
"I didn't know what I could do with my degree," said Backman, originally from Oshkosh, Wis. "It was hard for me to define what an environmental engineer was. I expected to get internship results by going on the Internet and searching, but that didn't do it."
Frustrated, she started talking to other environmental engineering students and found that others were experiencing the same difficulties and had the same questions as she did. That's when the idea came.
"I thought if we formed a club, we could help each other see opportunities," she said.
Backman's idea turned into the Environmental Engineering Student Organization (EESO), which launched in fall 2009. Backman, along with fellow undergraduate students Orion Agnew, Brandi McKuin and Edward Tang are the group's founding officers.
Although the EESO is just a few months old, it has gotten off to a busy start. The organization's mission is to ensure the academic and career success of environmental engineering students through networking. The group has approximately 30 members, with about half of them attending weekly meetings. While the organization is primarily for environmental engineering majors, students in similar disciplines - earth systems science , environmental systems , applied mathematical sciences and management - are encouraged to join.
Last semester, several UC Merced faculty members gave presentations, sharing stories about their careers and research , and offering advice on everything from finding internships to choosing an advisor for graduate school. On days when a speaker isn't scheduled to talk, students use the time to host study groups or work on projects.
One goal, Backman said, is to get professionals already working in the industry to address the group, so students can gain insight into the field and learn what steps they can and should take to build their careers.
Agnew said the group has helped him and other students realize their career options are broad and unlimited because of the diversity of the classes he and other environmental engineering students take at UC Merced. Coursework includes studying hydrology, climate, sustainable energy, meteorology and air pollution.
"Establishing this club was a good idea because environmental engineering is a new hybrid of engineering that covers a lot of areas," Agnew said. "It's like a buffet out there right now and this group can help students find their niche."
Students interested in learning more about the EESO can e-mail Agnew at email@example.com .