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Sonia Bornemann tugged a strand of spotted knapweed, easily three feet long, from one of Milltown State Park’s slopes.

She’d pulled "a few hundred at least" from the area over the past three days, and the Livingston woman still had a few more hours to go.

The University of Montana freshman had chosen UM for the strength of its wildlife biology program and “gorgeous” area. She and about two dozen other freshmen learned about the region's ecology firsthand this week while pulling weeds at Milltown.

This service project was one of several “Big Sky Experiences” for freshmen that UM hosted around greater Missoula from Monday through Wednesday. In recent years, the university has been working to lift its enrollmentgraduation and retention rates and appeal to out-of-state students. This year, it added the mandatory Big Sky Experience as “a new strategy to connect students with their peers, the university, the Missoula community and the region,” UM spokeswoman Paula Short wrote in an email.

“Research shows that students who feel a sense of connection and belonging have stronger support networks, feel empowered to access student services and navigate the transition to college more smoothly."

So this week, students met in small groups and got to know each other, learned more about the area, and helped the community.

“Having that (experience) tacked on to the front really helps students get to know each other,” said Austin Reed, a junior and UM Advocate helping lead the program. Having started at UM before the Big Sky Experience was introduced, he can appreciate its benefits. “Personally I came from out-of-state, over in Ohio, and I wish I had an experience like this to meet new people before school starts.”

In all, UM scheduled Big Sky Experiences with 40 different entities, both on- and off-campus, from Monday through Wednesday. The Milltown project was hosted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“Picking weeds wasn’t my first choice, but we’re doing something for the environment,” Bornemann said.  

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“They’ve been to every part of the park,” said Gwen Keller, the Americorps member who helped coordinate it. She said the program "was a great opportunity for us to have a lot of hands” to clean up the weed-prone restoration area, and for the students to learn about invasive species.

They kept at it Wednesday morning, picking weeds out of the rocky floodplain, listening to music from a portable speaker and occasionally breaking for an ecology lesson from Keller or game of rock-paper-scissors with Reed.

Thursday and Friday, the orientation schedule focuses more on advising and academics.

The program received a variety of reviews. Bornemann would have liked to have gotten more practical knowledge upfront.

“I still don’t know my way around campus right now,” she said Wednesday morning. “Next year I’d like to see the students getting more associated with that.”

Another freshman, Rachel Anderson, of Spokane, gave the program higher marks. “I like that they’re kind of easing us into the college,” she said.

She had picked UM for its journalism program and the opportunity to graduate debt-free. While she hadn’t expected to start by picking weeds, she said “the wilderness is really pretty, and it’s a good workout,” and a gentle way to start the college experience.

“I like the long orientation. It makes you feel more comfortable”

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