UM Student Advocate Demonstrates Leadership at Orientation Conference

New UM students take part in activities on campus on the first day of the fall 2020 semester, as part of Orientation. UM's student Advocates help in leading Orientation each year. 

A University of Montana freshman won a case-study challenge to solve a fictional scenario involving hurtful messages during a recent regional orientation conference.

This is a headshot of a girl wearing a grey shirt with the University of Montana logo on it
Ashley Pepper, UM freshman and first-time Advocate, won the case study challenge at this year’s National Association for Orientation, Transition and Retention in Higher Education (NODA) Region I-II-III conference for her orientation leadership skills. 

UM’s Ashley Pepper from Castle Rock, Colorado – randomly paired with Scarlett Manning from Loyola Marymount University in California – won the challenge at this year’s National Association for Orientation, Transition and Retention in Higher Education (NODA) Region I-II-III conference.

The conference brought together more than 200 undergraduates and almost 100 professionals virtually from a variety of schools across the Western U.S. and Canada. During the conference, student pairs were presented with the scenario and asked how they would handle it.

Pepper, along with her partner, knew exactly what to do despite never actually leading an Orientation before.

“Fortunately, the student that I was paired with had many of the same ideas that I did for the situation, so it was pretty easy to come up with the ideas and policies that we could implement to prevent a situation like it from occurring again, and how to deal with it,” Pepper said.

Pepper, who studies integrated physiology and athletic training, is a brand-new UM student Advocate. Twenty UM Advocates, along with advisers Devin Carpenter and Liz Stotts, attended the NODA conference.

As campus leaders, UM Advocates provide volunteer tours for visitors through the Undergraduate Admissions Office and are involved in the New Student Orientation process. They also come from a variety of backgrounds and majors.

Carpenter, UM’s director of new student success and region I coordinator for NODA, said Advocates are essential for onboarding new students.

“Peer connections like the ones the Advocates bring to the table are perhaps the most important factor in a student’s decision to attend a college,” Carpenter said. “When a student visits campus for the first time and takes a tour and then attends New Student Orientation and sees those same Advocates they already engaged with on their visit, they get to know them even better through the Orientation program.”  

Pepper said she joined the Advocates to meet new people during the pandemic – which can prove challenging for new students.

“I think that the most important thing for new college students to learn about at Orientation is all the resources that are here to help them and how to access them,” Pepper said. “The social aspect is also very important because for many students, this is their first time away from home and they are looking for other people to connect with.”

This fall, new students at UM will experience immersion in the full college experience with the second year of a newly revamped New Student Orientation, which won the NODA Region I Innovative Program award last year. The new model focuses on engaging students in the community with the Big Sky Experience, as well as aiding their academic and social transition in Getting Your Bearings.

The Big Sky Experience highlights the outdoors, science, technology, arts, culture, entrepreneurship, diversity, service and leadership. With community partners such as Missoula City Parks and Recreation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Garden City Harvest, Grizzly Athletics and UM ROTC, a UM Advocate leads each experience for groups of 20 new students.

“We are so lucky to be in Missoula and to have a community that is so readily interested in helping onboard new students and provide an exceptional immersion experience as the very first thing they do as new UM students,” Carpenter said. 

According to Carpenter, the first six weeks of a new student’s college experience are most important to their continuation and graduation. With the revamped New Student Orientation implemented by Carpenter in 2019, new-student retention increased by 1.9% by spring 2020 – the first positive number since 2016.

“New Student Orientation represents the very first steps a student has on campus as a new student, and it is essential for this program to engage students in meaningful ways, otherwise they begin their college journey with the wrong foot forward and are at an increased risk of stopping or dropping out,” Carpenter said.

This fall, UM will return to the new Orientation model after a hiatus last fall due to COVID, and New Student Orientation will tentatively take place Aug. 23-27

And Advocates like Pepper will help lead the way.

“Without the Advocates, we could not do any of the things we do at New Student Orientation with any success,” Carpenter said. “I may be in charge of planning everything, but the Advocates are truly the ones who make it all come together.”


Contact: Devin Carpenter, UM director of new student success, 406-243-2332,