Being a student in the Biology and Environmental Studies departments at UM, it only seemed natural for me to declare my Global Theme in Natural Resources and Sustainability. I have always had a keen interest in promoting green energy and more sustainable lifestyles. Little did I know that there was so much of a push for these interests in my own backyard. My out-of-the-classroom experience allowed me the opportunity to learn about these movements happening throughout Montana and gave me real-life experiences in the environmental sector to jump start me towards a career.
My experience was not like most. I did not travel to exotic lands in a different continent, I did not enroll at a foreign university, and I did not exchange my dollar bills for another currency. In fact, I didn’t even leave my time zone. However, that does not mean I wasn’t exposed to new people from different places, cultures different than my own, unique languages, or academic challenges. My experience was rather unique. I chose to not leave the state of Montana. Instead, I delved deep into environmental issues that affect my daily life. I learned about my neighbors experiencing social and cultural injustices. And I learned about myself and my own beliefs and values.
My journey started in Missoula. A group of ten students, perfect strangers, gathered in the office of The Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI). Little did I know that these ten strangers would be my family for the next three months. We nervously sifted through our backpacking gear, anxious about what would happen next. Looking back now, I had nothing to fear; what awaited me was the experience of a lifetime. But in the moment, I was terrified. All I knew then was that I was about to leave behind my warm bed, friends and family, and indoor plumbing for a more natural and humbling experience. And that is exactly what I received, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
The program consisted of four sections. We spent the first nine days backpacking through the Scapegoat Wilderness. Section Two included a nine-day kayak float down the Missouri River, Section Three had a week-long backpack in the Big Snowies, and Section Four concluded our journey with a five-day kayak trip on the Tongue River in Eastern Montana. These wilderness experiences were beautiful, organic, and challenging—both physically and mentally. They were truly wild. Being able to spend time in such natural and unpopulated spaces really bore a connection between me and the place I was exploring and yearning to protect.
While these sections of my WRFI course were beyond valuable and extraordinary, they were not the most memorable or impactful parts of my experience. It was everything that happened in between these backcountry outings that really stuck with me. The conversations with environmental professionals, the historical site visits, and the relationships we formed with town locals as we traversed the state are what constituted this WRFI experience. Everything that I thought of as “off-periods” during these few months, ended up being the bulk of my education.
One of the most important lessons I learned is that there is diversity everywhere you go. I thought I knew Montana since I had gone to school here for three years, but I was proven to be extremely wrong. The diversity of cultures that exist just within one state blew me away. I was fortunate enough to meet with members representing more than six Native American tribes and learn about each of their values, traditions, spiritual beliefs, politics, and languages.I learned that there are always two sides (if not more) to a story or a controversy and how important it is for all sides to be heard. But most importantly, I learned to always question my own beliefs. By testing and examining my own belief system, I can objectively see if something I think is just, or if I simply believe that due to my own culture and upbringing. Being exposed to different cultures’ challenges and struggles existing only hours away from Missoula heightened my awareness towards my own prejudices and social and environmental injustices that exist in my home. If nothing else, I learned to look outside my own culture and personal bubble for neighbors and friends that might need help advocating against a dominant opinion.
Along the way we met with artists, authors, politicians, tribal elders, environmental and industrial professionals, and everyday town people. We read philosophical, scientific, political, and cultural pieces. We learned about the U.S. as it is, and how it could be. We pushed ourselves socially, mentally, physically, and academically. And with all of this combined, I walked away from my WRFI experience as a better leader. I learned how to quickly adapt to a new group. It was very obvious that we underwent Tuckman’s stages of group development, but being able to recognize that and roll with the punches without quitting or detaching helped make me a stronger, more level-headed leader among my peers. I also learned how to better associate with people I don’t particularly like. And I learned when it is important to advocate for my beliefs and when it is important to bite my tongue. Overall, I became a better leader because I was better able to understand the needs of a group sometimes trump my individual needs. I became selfless, flexible, and understanding of others’; I gained compassion for others which is something I desperately lacked as a leader going in to this experience.
Not only did WRFI provide me a unique outdoor experience, I always gained invaluable leadership skills and relationships with people across Montana. I might not have traveled across the globe, but I was able to have intimate experiences and gain deep insight in a place that means so much to me and where I will be able to continue to apply my knowledge and experience for years to come in the field of environmental sustainability.