UM freshman Mara Menahan won an essay contest, writing about Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish.” The contest was part of the University’s First-Year Reading Experience, which asks all incoming freshmen to share the experience of reading the same book.
Eighteen-year-old Mara Menahan is in the midst of a perfect freshman year, designed exclusively by The University of Montana.
Offer opportunities, and students will seize them – at least that’s what Menahan did. She embraced two important first-year programs that she says have made her freshman year more meaningful and charted a fine course for her college career. She’s partnering with the University for her success.
Her professors already have become mentors, she says, and she’s learned so much about the campus and community, as well as made good friends. She notes that campus is full of lectures in the evenings she can attend at her leisure.
“I just feel like I have so many opportunities,” Menahan says with the kind excitement she might have if she’s just starting her year rather than close to finishing it.
The first thing she did right, the Helena native says, was take advantage of a First-year Interest Group (FIG), which is designed to give new students a head start in their majors and help them build social networks that connect them to the UM and Missoula communities. A FIG is a pre-packaged group of high-demand freshman courses that students take together with up to 20 classmates.
The second thing she did right was enter and win the prestigious First-Year Reading Experience essay contest. The victory, Menahan says, stems in part from the FIG, which in her case was last autumn’s Honors FIG “Thinking Green.”
Menahan’s major, at least for now, is environmental studies, she says, and the “Thinking Green” FIG gave her just what she had hoped for. “I wish the FIG had lasted all year, but it did set me on a good path,” she says.
From the group she learned of sustainability efforts going on across campus and in the community. One of the first projects she involved herself with was helping write a green-living guide for students housed in the residence halls.
Menahan says she was so busy academically her first semester that she couldn’t get as involved in the community as she’d like. However, she still managed to give some time to efforts such as UM Climate Action Now, whose goal is for campus to be entirely carbon neutral by 2020; A Thousand New Gardens, a community effort to help Missoulians grow their own food in their own gardens; and Volunteer for Veggies, a program of Garden City Harvest.
In her core courses, she learned to contrast different ways of thinking such as anthropocentric and biocentric points of view, both of which she drew on in her essay, “Understanding Our Origins.” The essay contest was part of the First-Year Reading Experience, designed to give all incoming students a shared experience. Freshmen were asked to read “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin.
Menahan won in the scholarly/analytical essay category, a victory that comes with a $250 cash prize and automatic appointment to the First-Year Reading Experience Board.
“I was so happy to win,” Menahan remembers. “I felt like it was a culmination of everything I learned that semester, and it was so gratifying.”
Menahan doesn’t hide the fact that UM wasn’t her only college choice, indicating that she’d first considered Bowdoin, Colorado and Whitman. She came to UM in part for the lower cost. It took less than one semester to convince her she’d made the right decision.
While students like Menahan seem to have no problem finding a clear path with a little guidance, some students need more help. Whether they need a little or a lot, UM has created a new program, Partnering for Student Success, to enhance student experiences and increase retention and graduation rates.
Arlene Walker-Andrews, associate provost for undergraduate education and policy and special assistant to the president for accreditation, says the University uses its Strategic Plan to “help students have those experiences. We want to wake them up to what it means to get a college education and what you can do with it.
“Partnering for Student Success goes hand in hand with Education for a Global Century, Discovery and Creativity, and Dynamic Learning Environment,” Walker-Andrews says. “These Strategic Issues all are so intertwined. Student success is the nuts and bolts, but the global perspective is how we teach them to use what they’ve learned.”
The University strives to improve student success by helping them prepare for college-level work, assisting them with the transition to college, improving their early curriculum and getting them more involved with college life.
Partnering for Student Success grew out of a consulting process led by Walker-Andrews and Teresa Branch, vice president for student affairs. The effort included a number of committees and more than 100 campus citizens working toward the goal of student retention.
From that process came changes in summer orientations. Students who couldn’t afford to come to campus twice – once in the summer and again for the academic year – were worried about not getting their required core classes. The University now allows students to sign up for several core classes before orientation.
UM scholars also are supported by the new Office for Student Success, charged with developing, implementing and coordinating initiatives to help students graduate. UM will measure – and monitor improvement in – a variety of variables, including the grade-point averages and test scores of incoming students, the number of those participating in college prep classes and the percentage of students enrolled in college following high school graduation.
The University also will monitor changes in the freshman GPA and first-year retention, the number who declare majors, enrollment in freshman seminars and other indicators. Surveys will track engagement in the learning environment and the effectiveness of student support services. Launched in 2008, Partnering for Student Success already has improved the UM freshman retention rate from 69 to 74 percent.
It’s a lofty goal, but the University wants to ensure all students have a freshman year as fulfilling as Menahan’s.
Menahan (center) and her fellow students take in a chemistry class in UM’s Urey Lecture Hall.
Menahan pursues an intensive curriculum as a student in UM’s Davidson Honors College.