MISSOULA – “Leave the cell phones behind and welcome to your next adventure!” shouts one of the 19 student-leaders for this year’s Freshmen Wilderness Experience Program at the University of Montana.
On Aug. 19 UM welcomed its third and largest class of freshmen for FWE. Ninety-four students arrived to prepare for a four-day wilderness adventure as part of UM’s orientation program. The experience is open to all incoming freshmen at UM, and most participants have never camped before or been on a multiday wilderness trip.
Sponsored by the Wilderness Institute and the UM Outdoor Program, the program allows 10 groups of freshmen, each led by two trained student guides, to spend four days and three nights in various wilderness areas around the state, completing service projects and performing group- and community-oriented tasks.
“Being able to arrive on campus one day not knowing anyone, and then return four days later having bonded with strangers in a wilderness setting was an amazing way to integrate into the school community,” said Zoe Leake, a former FWE participant, who returned to the program for the past two years as a student-leader. “It gave me confidence to recognize faces during Orientation, and the trip itself instills a confidence as well, because you’re completing physically strenuous tasks that challenge your body and your mind.”
Natalie Dawson, director of UM’s Wilderness Institute, said they use former FWE students as the organizing staff for the event.
“Our dream was to make this a program for students, run by students, and it is finally starting to happen,” she said.
The Wilderness Institute, housed within the College of Forestry and Conservation, offers integrated, interdisciplinary and experiential wilderness education to UM students and wilderness stewards around the globe.
Dawson said FWE not only fosters a strong community of learning across UM, but also supports the University’s continuing efforts to increase recruitment, provides mentorships with older students and fosters a strong sense of place that can be developed by spending time in the wild lands surrounding Missoula.
“FWE is a program that allows those of us with experience to share our passion of land conservation and recreation with the next generation of land stewards,” Leake said.