UM students form bonds, overcome obstacles on wilderness trips

Students participating in UM’s Freshman Wilderness Experience backpack through the wilderness. (UM photo)

Backpacks, boots, fly rods and smiles were all in abundance as more than 100 University of Montana students returned to campus Tuesday evening after participating in four days of wilderness adventures through UM’s Freshman Wilderness Experience.

Groups of incoming students, each led by two trained student leaders, traversed various wilderness areas around the state, successfully navigating the challenges created by rugged terrain and Montana weather. Divided into small groups, they spent four days and three nights either canoeing the Missouri River or backpacking through the Pintlers, the Bitterroots or the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The FWE is open to all incoming freshmen at UM, regardless if they have been on a multi-day wilderness trip or have ever been camping before.

“The trips allow incoming students to deepen their bonds with one another while instilling a sense of confidence that helps them feel more comfortable as they approach the unknowns of college,” said Steve Thompson, UM Campus Recreation director. “The wilderness setting serves an amazing venue to integrate the new students into the UM community.”

Now in its seventh year, the Freshmen Wilderness Experience is sponsored by Campus Recreation’s Outdoor Program and The Wilderness Institute in UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.

One of the highlights of the FWE is the growing involvement of student alumni in the program, said Elizabeth Fricke, senior associate director of UM’s Outdoor Programs.

“Each year more and more former FWE participants are returning to work as organizing staff and guides for the trips,” she said. “By fostering peer networks and establishing a sense of engagement with the UM campus, Missoula and the surrounding wilderness areas, students are more likely to stay in school and persist toward graduation.”

The retention rate for FWE participants in 2017 was 80.4 percent, compared to 64.6 percent for students who did not participate in FWE.