UM First-Year Student Essay Winners Announced

December 03, 2014

MISSOULA – The First-Year Reading Experience Committee at the University of Montana recently selected freshmen Libbey Barsness and Nathaniel Smith as the winners of the First-Year Essay Contest.

As part of the First-Year Reading Experience at UM, students read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, a collection of short stories about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Students were invited to write and submit essays in two categories: Personal Reflection and Analytical. The First-Year Reading Experience Committee received strong submissions in each category, evidence of students’ insightful engagement with O’Brien’s book.

Barsness’ essay, “A Reaction to Tim O’Brien’s Views on Death,” won the Personal Reflection category. Barsness, who was raised in Missoula and moved to Helena following fifth grade, outlined her unique bond with her mother in the essay. Her mother was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer the summer after Barsness’ sixth-grade year, and went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries before passing away this past August.

Barsness currently is majoring in history while considering a minor in anthropology.

Smith, a UM Presidential Scholar from Moab, Utah, won the Analytical Essay category with his submission, “The Ambiguity of Truth in ‘The Things They Carried.’” His essay examines O’Brien’s use of blurred boundaries between fact and fiction to demonstrate the impossibility of objectively understanding war.

Smith plans to major in creative writing or English. Aside from reading and writing, he enjoys outdoor activities such as backpacking, rafting and skiing.

Barsness and Smith each won a $250 cash prize.

Each year, the First-Year Reading Experience provides new students a common connection through a thought-provoking book. A committee of UM faculty, staff and students select a book from nominations submitted by the entire campus community. The program is not mandatory, but it is highly encouraged to help prepare students for their academic life on campus.

For more information on the First-Year Reading Experience, visit, call The Writing Center Director Kelly Webster at 406-243-2470 or email



Contact: Kelly Webster, director, The Writing Center at UM, 406-243-2470,