She’s climbed these steps a hundred times – up past the moose, down the hall into the sunlit classroom. The Forestry Building is familiar, not unlike the Yakima River she fished with her dad growing up.

After a 17-year career selling cars, bookkeeping and running an office in Seattle, Tracy Wendt is lined up to graduate with the University of Montana’s Class of 2013.

Except she won’t be lining up at all. She’ll jump into a summer job with Montana Trout Unlimited before starting graduate school next fall.

At least, she says with an eager grin, her new career track has gotten her out of the office and away from the three Starbucks coffee shops that filled her downtown building in Seattle.

Work there was underwhelming.

“I was tired of being indoors all the time,” Wendt said. “I was indoors for 10 hours a day. I started volunteering for the parks department in Seattle and I really liked it.”

Fearful of returning to college at the age of 36, Wendt signed up for community college in Spokane. She breezed through the classes, earning her associate degree in applied science.

But the rivers called and she knew she couldn’t get the job she wanted with a two-year degree. She visited the University of Idaho before heading to Missoula. By the time she crossed Lolo Pass, she was hooked on all western Montana had to offer.

“I was looking for a school where I could study fish habitat,” said Wendt. “I got halfway through that drive and I knew I had to live close.”

After meeting with Daniel Pletscher, director of the Wildlife Biology Program, Wendt settled on UM. She chose wildland restoration as her minor and resource conservation as her major.

“With resource conservation, I could choose what I’m interested in,” Wendt said. “I really was able to figure out what I’m passionate about and take the courses that support that. Most of my classes really encouraged professional development and getting out in the community.”

And that’s what Wendt did. She signed on as the office manager for the Wilderness Institute, and she joined the board for the Westslope Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

She became the student representative on the Western Division of American Fisheries Society, and is now president-elect of the UM American Fisheries Society.

Toss in her contribution to the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Blackfoot Challenge and her recent work with peers on the Rock Creek restoration project, and her time is anything but free.

“It’s nice to get out and meet people interested in the same things I am,” Wendt said. “It’s a good way to meet these people and become aware of job openings. I want to develop a reputation as someone who's committed to conservation.”

While most of her peers will reflect on their accomplishments during commencement this weekend, Wendt will be looking toward Monday, when she begins her summer job with Montana Trout Unlimited.

Graduate school waits in the wings.

“Most of the professors here, you can tell they genuinely care about student success and really want to see us do well,” Wendt said. “It’s more than I expected. I didn’t expect to get as much help and feedback as we do.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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