MISSOULA ꟷ After trying on five or six majors as an undergraduate in Indiana, Jake Reller knew, deep down, that elementary education, biology and economics didn’t feel quite right. No point in bouncing around between classes and spending money on tuition when the passion wasn’t there.
Reller knew it was time to take a step back from college, reorient and try again in the future. In search of the next step, he did what most 20-somethings do in moments of transition: Google.
“Outdoor jobs in the West” was the search term he punched in. Montana Conservation Corps bubbled to the top, advertising trail work in Montana’s expansive backcountry.
“It sounded amazing,” Reller said. “My plan was to work outside for a year, kind of get my bearings and then go back to school.”
Reller never did make it back to Indiana.
Instead, he spent one year as a trail crew member for MCC and then two more as a crew leader, doing the grunt work of trail construction and repair that Reller calls “super fun, hard stuff.” He found a passion in caring for public lands, making a difference each time he swung his Pulaski, and watching the seasons change from the forest floor. He also crossed paths with his now-wife, meeting her through MCC.
Reller’s penchant for leadership in the outdoors took him to another trail post in Washington. Then, it was back to Montana, working for the Forest Service in Lincoln as a trail liaison with MCC and other Forest Service partners in the Scapegoat Wilderness.
It turns out, for the six years Reller spent outside in the West, his professional compass was ultimately pointing to the University of Montana.
“I realized I had found my passion working outdoors, caring for and stewarding the land, and I knew UM had a great forestry school,” he said. “It was a natural transition at that time for me. I knew I wanted to get back and finish my degree.”
Taking advantage of the education stipend as an AmeriCorps volunteer through MCC, Reller enrolled in UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.
Three years later, Reller will graduate this Saturday as one of 12 of the college’s Mortar Board seniors, an American national honor society for college seniors. Reller will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in forestry, a minor in fire sciences and management and a certificate in GIS sciences and technologies.
Looking back at his time as a nontraditional student at UM, he said what most drew him into the forestry college was how every class seemed to complement each other.
“I became fully immersed in the forestry program,” he said. “With the combination of all the classes together, taught by excellent faculty, I knew I was ready to take a deep dive and really commit to doing well and to try to make a career of this.”
Immersed in hands-on classes and fieldwork in forestry classes, Reller said he most enjoyed the real-world application of forestry he had a front-row seat to, calling every class “an opportunity to add a new set of skills into my forestry toolbox.”
In particular, he enjoyed writing a forest stand project proposal for a private landowner in Missoula and analyzing the spatial relationship between wildfire risk and vulnerable populations. Reller took advantage of a work-study opportunity at UM’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest and completed a Pathways internship with the U.S. Forest Service, part of a federal career development program for students and recent graduates.
David Affleck, professor, chair of the Department of Forest Management and director of the forest program, said Reller’s focused drive as a student will propel him to success in his career.
“I wish I could point to a course or some element of our program, but I believe it’s what Jake brought with him ꟷ a professionalism, a work ethic ꟷ and applied to everything he did here that’s going to continue to bring him success,” Affleck said.
After graduation, Reller will continue working out of Missoula for the Forest Service’s Region 1 Timber Strike Team in all phases of timber sale preparation and silviculture work in Montana and northern Idaho.
Reflecting on his journey that will take him across the graduation podium on Saturday, Reller said he’s glad he took the time needed to craft what he most wanted out of an education.
“It’s never too late to transition to something if you’re feeling stuck in a rut,” Reller said. “It’s worth it to go back to school and study something you’re more passionate about.”
As he closes this chapter in his life, Reller said he’s leaving UM with friends, memories and a seasoned mission to steward public lands.
“These lands were here long before we ever were, and they will be here for long after,” Reller said. “If I can do even just a little bit to make sure they’re staying healthy and we’re finding ways to sustainably use their resources, that’s the goal for me.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM strategic communications director, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.