Olivia Van Damme spends her days showing teenagers the depth of inspiration in the deep blue sea.

“Some live three miles from the ocean and have never been to the beach,” she said.

She finds that both shocking and sad. As someone who grew up in Redlands, about 90 minutes from the beach, said she can’t imagine not experiencing all the magic that the surf and sea has to offer.

Van Damme said when teens get up on a surfboard the first time, the reaction is always tangible.

“It’s the moment they feel power to choose what they want to do with their life and see what their body is capable of. You can see it in their eyes—the joy it brings to accomplish something new and find success,” she said. “For me, the moment in time just stops, and I can see the smile and joy that child is having. It’s a surreal moment of absolute joy and feeling power.”

While she tried the sport as a teenager, Van Damme (BA, Geography; Latin American Studies, ’15) credits her true passion for surfing to Chico State geography and planning professor Jacque Chase, who encouraged her to study abroad—which she did not once but twice during her undergraduate years.

“It was on the beach of Joaquina in Florianapolis in Brazil,” Van Damme said, recalling when the thrill took hold. “I really got into it when I studied there and in Costa Rica.”

Olivia Van Damme, City Surf Project operations manager and mentor.

Despite growing up 90 miles away from the ocean, surfing became a passion that Olivia Van Damme carried with her into nonprofit work.

Today, she works as operations manager at City Surf Project, which serves low-income, underserved students in grades 9–12 in a partnership with the San Francisco public school system.

“A lot of P.E. programs in San Francisco are being cut, and we are a nonprofit that provides a service to unified schools,” said Van Damme. “We offer a semester-long surfing class. The curriculum is environmental science, the history of surfing, gender studies. We go to the beach and do swimming lessons. Then we take them out surfing.”

At 24, Van Damme said this nonprofit realm is where she should be. She previously worked for Vida Verde, a Bay Area nonprofit bringing outdoor nature education to fourth through sixth graders. She also volunteered with Brown Girl Surf of Oakland, another nonprofit giving women and girls of color access to surfing and the ocean.

“Getting more students of color in outdoor sports and the environment reflects what our population looks like,” she said. “More people of color should be in leadership roles in nonprofits, conservation groups, government job, and state parks.”

Her love for the outdoors and the sea is lifelong. At Chico State, she was a member of the club soccer team and worked at the Wildcat Recreation Center’s climbing wall, as well as for Adventure Outings.

“That was an amazing group of students who were stewards of the environment,” said Van Damme, who was the geography department’s Student of the Year in 2015. “It all culminated in pursuing a career within social and environmental justice.”

Her inspiration comes from Dean Fairbanks, head of the Department of Geography, and professor Scott Brady, whose coursework was as enriching as it was challenging. And it was Chase who gave Van Damme guidance that she could double major—supporting both her passion and personal history with degrees in geography and
Latin American studies, as well as a minor in global development studies.

“Doors keep opening to me in this field. Another part of my identity is I am proud to be a Latina and a woman,” said Van Damme, whose ethnicity also is Belgian and Norwegian. “It’s important to support students in their heritage and culture.”

This May, she returned to Chico State as a speaker for the This Way to Sustainability conference, where she hoped to broaden her belief that everyone can contribute to sustaining the environment.

“It is my vision for an environmentally educated world and a nonprofit sector of environmental conservation and sustainability,” she said. “People of all different backgrounds can be involved in this work.”

As she looks to her future, she has a strong sense she’ll be spending much of her time outside, bringing people and nature—specifically, the ocean—together.

“Surfing is great for mental health. It gives you a lot of clarity and peace,” she said.

Story by Mary Nugent (BA, Communication, ’77), a reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record. The story first appeared in Chico Statements.