MISSOULA – Never in a million years – that’s what ran through Lexi Smith’s mind when she came across University of Montana during an internet college search from her home in Kealakekua, Hawaii. Never in a million years could she see herself moving over 3,000 miles away for school.
But then Smith discovered UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.
“I looked at the experiential learning opportunities and thought, ‘holy smokes, this is the place!’” says Smith, who will graduate with a bachelor’s in forestry and minor in ecological restoration.
Smith grew up in a family with strong ties to the land and always knew she wanted to build a career where she could be immersed in nature. Her father is a “paniolo,” meaning “cowboy” in Hawaiian and her mother’s family were coffee farmers who emigrated from the Philippines.
When Smith received her UM acceptance letter, she was over the moon. But her mom wasn’t so sure about her daughter attending college so far away from home. Smith convinced her to at least go for a visit, and the two boarded a flight for their first visit to Big Sky Country.
Smith had only traveled to the continental United States twice – once to Washington, D.C., and once to California. Despite the erratic spring weather (“We got off the plane and it was nice and sunny, then we had thunderstorms, and then it snowed!”), it didn’t take long for the two to fall in love with UM.
They found the campus community to be welcoming and kind. Prior to their visit, Smith had reached out to UM Professor of Biometrics David Affleck, who met them on campus and gave them a personalized tour.
“By the end of the tour, she was like, ‘I’m so excited for you to come here.’” Smith said of her mom’s sudden change of heart.
Smith recalls learning basic forestry skills in her first class, Forestry Skills 101, and feeling absolutely stoked to be there.
During her sophomore year, Affleck helped Smith solidify a minor in ecological restoration after Smith realized her love of native plants and ecosystems.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have her here – she’s an engaged student and at the top of her class academically,” Affleck said. “But more than that, she’s made a real impact on campus through her leadership in the Pacific Islanders Club and complete revitalization of our Society of American Foresters’ Student Chapter.”
Smith’s enthusiasm is infectious, but her journey hasn’t been without its challenges. She often found herself in classes with students who grew up in the West or students from logging families with forestry in their blood. She had never heard of a feller buncher (a type of harvester used in logging) and struggled understanding timber harvesting and pulley systems.
But she stuck with it, and her eyes were opened to how broad the field of forestry is and how much daily lives depend on forest products.
Smith became interested in the Montana chapter of the Society of American Foresters, which had taken a big hit after the pandemic. She became a member, even though there were only two students in the club, and she didn’t know either of them.
She started holding chapter meetings over Zoom in the fall of 2020 and in the spring, she sought help from the Associated Students of the University of Montana to get the club back up and running. She recruited one student to be treasurer and the two attended the Montana SAF meeting the following fall. By the next year, the club had grown to over 20 members. LASt year, Smith attended the national conference in Baltimore, where she met other student chapters and made professional connections.
Smith didn’t stop at SAF. During her time at UM, she was an active member of the Forestry Club, firewood boss for the Woodsmen Team, president of the Mortar Board senior honor society, and vice president of the Pacific Islanders Club.
After graduation, Smith is heading to the Montana Department of Natural Resources to work as a forestry technician for the Clearwater unit until December. She hopes to land a permanent job with the Forest Service in Montana. Eventually, she wants to return to school and pursue a Ph.D.
“Wherever I end up, I want to be enjoying myself,” she said.
New students heading to UM this fall should take some time to figure out their passions, Smith added, because “you might as well do what you love.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.