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New Program Offers Veterans a Way to Realign with Civilian Life

July 18, 2019
A view of Half Dome from the Merced River in Yosemite National Park
Organizers hope to incorporate the restorative power of nature into a seminar for veterans.

One of the pillars of UC Merced is service and giving back to the community.

Now the university, Yosemite National Park and partners in the region are offering a new program to help a group of people who gave back in advance — those who served in the military and now qualify for GI Bill benefits.

The Yosemite Veterans Education and Leadership Seminar , a unique, four-day experience focused on helping veterans access higher education, civilian life skills, family benefits and career pathways, kicks off late this summer at UC Merced and in Yosemite.

“In California, research shows that veterans are often unsure what paths are open to them — or how to navigate those paths — as they endeavor to rejoin civilian society,” course organizer Steve Shackelton said. “The objective of our partnership is to take the mystery out of accessing benefits and resources designed to enrich veterans’ lives, even as their participation diversifies and brings fresh thinking into eager organizations looking for talent.”

Shackelton, academic coordinator for the Management of Innovation, Sustainability and Technology program in UC Merced’s Ernest & Julio Gallo Management Program, used to be the chief ranger in Yosemite and spent decades trying to hire the best of the best.

“Careers in parks and protected lands are complicated and involve interdisciplinary education and experience — often involving combinations of science, teaching, fire-fighting, law enforcement, search and rescue, paramedicine and aviation, as well as ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork, leadership, communication under stress and risk management,” Shackelton said. “A lot of people who have been deployed have those skills, acquired the hard way — from tough circumstances of field experience.

“If we’re successful, we’ll help these people who have given years of service, graduate with degrees which, in addition to their existing skills would put them in super-competitive demand.”

The four-day course is a pilot and will be taught by a combination of university staff, California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) experts, public agency veterans and personnel officers from private corporations, such as Union Pacific Railroad, that have highly evolved programs for veterans.

Participants will attend classes in the morning at the NatureBridge National Science Education Center in Yosemite. In the afternoons, they will participate in field exercises in the park, led by veterans who work for the National Park Service and other organizations. Trip leaders will demonstrate in real time the wide range of occupations that would be available as careers for eligible veterans.

Thanks to the generosity of two key partners, the Yosemite Conservancy and the Merced Sunrise Rotary Club, this first cohort will not have to pay tuition. The class is open to veterans of all branches and active duty service personnel near discharge dates or retirement.

More than 11,100 veterans living within a 60-mile radius of UC Merced will receive direct-mailing postcards this week alerting them to the program, the website and information about registration. The program runs from Aug. 27 through 30, and the registration deadline is Aug. 7.

The seminar is a collaboration between UC Merced’s Gallo Management Program and UC Merced Extension, Yosemite National Park, CalVet, NatureBridge, the Yosemite Conservancy, the Merced Sunrise Rotary Club and Union Pacific Railroad.

“All of the partners involved in this program understand the importance of education in developing workforce resilience, where people from all backgrounds have opportunities,” Shackelton said. “Veterans offer a phenomenal pool of diverse, experienced people who have proven their capacity for the highest levels of service.

“But the partners also understand that sometimes vets face tough hurdles as they transition back into civilian life. At Gallo Management and in Extension, we want to help them tackle those challenges and develop leaders who are problem solvers.”

If successful, the program will be repeated and perhaps cloned in other parks across the country that have similar university relationships.

“We want to help smooth the path toward their success as acknowledgment for their investment in the well-being of the country,” Shackelton said, “as well as to promote prosperity in California.”

To learn more about the seminar, email sshackelton@ucmerced.edu.