Catching Fire: UM Forestry Student Awarded Prestigious Truman Scholarship

UM forestry senior Jaiden Stansberry was selected as one of 60 Truman Scholars out of 709 candidates this year. (UM Photo by Ryan Brennecke)

By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service

MISSOULA – The day before Jaiden Stansberry submitted her Truman Scholarship application – an involved process that includes 14 essays, a policy proposal and multiple interviews – she spent hours alongside her classmates razing a makeshift logging town constructed in the University of Montana’s Schreiber Gym for the 105th Foresters’ Ball. 

As “chief push” of the Foresters’ Ball committee, Stansberry was charged with the lofty task of overseeing the vibrant UM tradition from conception to conclusion, while maintaining her normal responsibilities as a senior forestry student.

“After deconstruction, the next day I was at the library fixing all my Truman Scholarship essays,” Stansberry said with a laugh, noting with pride that her team tore down the timber in record time.

It’s that cool leadership under pressure that helped Stansberry, who also is part of the Davidson Honors College and completing a Fire Science and Management minor and Franke Global Leadership Initiative certificate, stand out as one of 60 Truman Scholars selected among 709 candidates this year. 

“It kind of felt surreal,” Stansberry said of finding out about her award. “My mom cried when I called her, she was so happy about it.”

Truman Scholars demonstrate outstanding leadership potential, commitment to a career in government or the nonprofit sector, and academic excellence. After a rigorous application, those selected receive $30,000 in funding for graduate studies, leadership training, career counseling and special internship opportunities within the federal government. 

“It’s probably the most competitive award for undergraduates who want to pursue public service,” said Kylla Benes, director of the UM Office of External Scholarships and Fellowships. “These are students who are going to do great stuff no matter what, but the award allows them to leverage their talents in a way they may not have otherwise been able to.” 

Stansberry’s application focused on the topic at the nexus of her education, professional work and heart: wildland fire. 

In addition to studying fire science and management at UM, Stansberry works summers as a wildland firefighter in Yosemite National Park – the very place where she spent many of her formative childhood years that shaped her excitement for forestry. In fact, the first time Stansberry lived outside a national park was the day she moved to UM’s campus.

“I use the term ‘park brat,’” Stansberry quipped of growing up in national parks due to her father’s work. “I knew I always wanted to work for the Park Service.”

Stansberry’s focused passion, leadership and community-mindedness helped her shine as a candidate, Benes said, but it was a unique combination of firsthand knowledge as a wildland firefighter and high-level policy insight in her field that really gave her an extra edge.

“I think that’s Jaiden’s strong suit,” Benes said. “As a scholar, she can talk fire science and policy. But with her experience, she also can implement on-the-ground firefighting and preventative burning.”

Writing the policy proposal was an enjoyable and eye-opening highlight of the application. Stansberry spoke with UM professors and professionals in the National Park Service to learn what policy changes they’d like to see and why, working to create a realistic proposal that actually could be implemented. 

“It was really fun to get into the weeds about what really needs to be changed, and if that can be changed by an action through legislation or through creating programs,” she said. 

Stansberry’s proposal suggested ways to recruit and retain impassioned leaders in wildland fire management by getting more seasonal workers into the Park Service’s apprenticeship program, then transitioning them into permanent positions. It also discussed creating categorical exclusions for cultural burning, which would allow for better collaboration on prescribed burns between the Park Service and area tribes that have long managed the land.

Stansberry recently used her proposal to make a public comment on Glacier National Park’s Fire Management Plan, which is being updated. 

“It was fun to put my work into something real,” Stansberry said. 

Applying her education to the real world is a theme of Stansberry’s time at UM and part of the very reason she’s proud to be a Griz. 

The College of Forestry is ripe with opportunities,” she said. ”If you tell a professor that you’re interested in something, they will likely be able to accommodate it.”

Stansberry consistently stepped up to seize leadership opportunities as an undergraduate, including writing a burn plan to fulfill an honors credit. After hours of field modeling, parameter-setting and contingency planning for the 100-acre grassland burn, it was actually implemented in the Clearwater Junction region.

Stansberry also is involved in UM’s Fire Club, Forestry Club and Woodsman Team. Those experiences, along with helping revive UM’s Foresters’ Ball in 2023 after a pandemic-caused hiatus, made her a natural fit as chief push her senior year.

 Stansberry is proud to have helped put on another successful ball for the community and mentor younger students to keep the tradition alive after she graduates.

“The people that I’ve met in this major and the opportunities I’ve had – to do chief push of the foresters ball and lead clubs and all those other experiences – is exactly what I was wanting from college,” Stansberry said. “It’s just been a phenomenal time here, and I’m really glad this is the school I ended up going to.”

Becoming a Truman Scholar opens new doors into Stansberry’s future. This summer, she’ll work as a wildland firefighter in Glacier National Park before embarking on her Truman Scholarship internship in Washington, D.C., next summer. In the interim, she’ll think hard about where to go to graduate school to further refine her wildland fire policy expertise. 

“It's definitely changing the course of what I’m going to do with my life,” Stansberry said.


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,