Forging a path through the Big Sky

How recent alumni navigate community and careers as they ponder Montana’s place in their future.

“The more I travel, the more I’m convinced that Montana really is ‘the last best place,’” Matt Smith, a 2011 graduate, wrote from Nairobi. “If I had to consider the best-case scenario,” he said of his future, “I would have a solid foot in Montana and stretch the rest of myself elsewhere.”

Our state, after all, is a place worth falling in love with. Each of us knows this, if not consciously, then deep within the corners of the soul. Montana’s character — its essential quality of landscape and people — speaks to something indescribable in each of us who comes here, and tugs on each of us who leaves.

But at odds with that truth is another — the tension that drives many of us fortunate enough to graduate from the Big Sky Country’s universities to grander opportunities of more populous states and cities as we begin our professional careers. Often, the old adage that “Montana’s best export is its college graduates” becomes heart-wrenchingly real.

For the MSU Class of 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 35 percent of graduates surveyed by the university’s career services office had left the state within a year of commencement. That number varies by field, with 58 percent of 2011 engineering graduates leaving in comparison to only 26 percent of graduates from the College of Education, Health and Human Development.

Popular destinations for 2011 graduates include Colorado, Washington, California and Idaho, each attracting 2 or 3 percent of the class. Of alumni who stayed in Montana, 80 percent settled near Bozeman, Billings, Missoula, Great Falls or Helena, with 56 percent staying in Gallatin County.

Beneath the statistics lies a complexity of deeply personal decisions made by each graduate, the product of available career opportunities, graduate school plans and allusive, half-glimpsed dreams of the future. Family ties, community and a thirst for adventure each play a role.

Recent alumni interviewed by the Exponent expressed each of these oft-conflicting sentiments, along with a deep-seated personal connection to their state and a certain frustration at the scarcity of options for young professionals in the early stages of their careers.

The last best place is a home for each of us — but, as we pursue our dreams, how can we hold onto our sense of place in it?

Big sky, small communities

“I can’t imagine the soul of my person wanting to be anywhere as much as I want to be here,” said Abbie Bandstra, a winter 2012 graduate who is now living in her native Livingston.

She initially came to MSU somewhat ambivalent as the result of a “utility-based” decision, she said, planning to study English and eventually leave to teach someplace else. The perception among her high school classmates was that attending MSU meant “settling,” she felt — almost as if “you have to leave to live.”

In her junior year, however, she left the state to spend a semester at a college in New Hampshire through an exchange program only to discover she did not fit in well. “I would try to talk to students, and no one would talk to me,” she said, explaining that she ended up withdrawing to spend the rest of the semester working on a farm. “It helped me appreciate MSU.”

“Being far away made me realize that I liked the smallness,” Bandstra said. “Being in Montana isn’t a cop-out.”

Another alumnus raised in a small town, Nate Carroll grew up in population-300 Ekalaka in southeastern Montana, which happens to be a “phenomenal place to dig up dinosaurs.” Now pursuing a masters in paleontology after completing a bachelor’s at MSU, he said he considers himself lucky to have grown up in a place where he could pursue his passion, especially given the strength of the MSU paleontology program.

As a high school student pursuing projects like the construction of a powered T-rex skull replica, Carroll said he was amazed by the support he received from the Ekalaka community. At one point, for instance, he was able to borrow a hydraulic engine from the local service station, getting design pointers drawn on napkins by local ranchers. “It would have been so easy for any of [them] to say that they didn’t really have the time, or that they didn’t trust me,” he said. “But they didn’t.”

“I get the sense that Bozeman has that same sense of community,” he added. “You spend four years here and you get ingrained in the community, and the community helps you out. So many projects and events happen here because of this support.”

Surprising opportunity

Before heading to Nairobi, Smith, a Helena High School alumnus, came to MSU more out of necessity than opportunity. “I was amongst the cohort of Montana high-school graduates who had no direction, and going to MSU was the logical (and only) choice,” he said.

After working in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and getting “a glimpse of policy work outside of Montana,” Smith became involved with the MSU Engineers Without Borders chapter, as well as helping build what is now the Network of Environmentally Conscious Organizations, or NECO, the campus sustainability club.

Smith graduated with degrees in business and philosophy in 2011, and received a Boren Fellowship in May 2012 to pursue graduate research and learn Swahili in East Africa. Currently, living in Kenya, he is working with a group that specializes in youth enterprise development. The work, he says, is a “natural extension” from his time with NECO and other involvement at MSU.

In contrast to Smith, Brie Webber, a winter 2012 civil engineering graduate originally from Kalispell, said she was drawn to MSU because of its reputation for affordability and strong science programs. “I didn’t want to have a bunch of student loans,” she said, adding that she does not know if she would have been able to pursue graduate studies right away if she had not graduated from MSU without debt.

Webber moved to Colorado after graduation with the intent of establishing residency and entering a graduate program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. However, she ended up being admitted to University of California Berkeley’s environmental engineering Ph.D. program, funded by a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship.

A majority of her fellow students at Berkeley will come from Ivy League schools or large state universities, she said, explaining that she appreciated the opportunities MSU gave her to compete with them. “I worked my ass off and I got there like all these other people,” she said. “I felt like I had an equal opportunity.”

Leaving home

Despite the opportunities provided by Montana’s universities, fewer professional options exist for its recent graduates.

Webber knew she wanted to leave Montana after graduation, she said, hoping to study in a different place and, in the long-term, pursue a career at a large firm in a city with more cultural opportunities. “Right now, I crave bigger,” she explained.

Bandstra, currently working part-time at small businesses and as a substitute teacher in Livingston, has struggled more to find a professional path. “I feel like, as a young person, there’s not a place for me, professionally,” she said.

After initially studying English teaching at MSU, Bandstra ended up switching to a literature focus because she was “frustrated with the program.” She now plans to return to school in Bozeman to finish her teaching certificate, and thinks she may ultimately pursue a graduate degree in education.

However, she noted that the specialities she is most interested in are not available at MSU, meaning she will likely need to spend some time in another part of the country. “I want experiences and diversity,” she said. “I want to be able to bring something back.”

“I need to go find that newness out there,” she added.

Dewey Brooke, a 2012 biochemistry graduate who grew up in Pony, 60 miles west of Bozeman, will also see his career take his life out of Montana for the first time in the coming months. Involved in research with viruses and proteins since his sophomore year, he chose to stay in Bozeman after graduation to continue his lab work and apply to medical schools.

Despite submitting 18 med-school applications, Brooke said he only received a single interview offer and no acceptances. Furthermore, he lost his lab job this past month as a result of budget cuts stemming from the federal government sequester.

However, he was able to secure a job in a lab at the University of Alabama in Birmingham through a connection with a visiting professor, and sees the silver lining in his situation. “When you don’t leave your home,” he said, “you get accustomed to things not changing.”

Leaving Bozeman for a city with a larger population than the state of Montana will be a transition, regardless. “I’ve been in every coffee shop, every bookstore, every restaurant,” Brooke said. “I haven’t really known anything else. This seems like my entire world.”

Returning to the last best place

University of Montana geography professor Christiane von Reichert, who has spent time interviewing people who return to their rural hometowns, said that family and community rank among the most important reasons people return.

“They want their kids to grow up like they did,” she said, or want to be near family. “People find it difficult to not be close.”

However, moving back to Montana is often a difficult step professionally, Reichert explained, as coming home often necessitates creating a career opportunity for yourself — by starting a business, for instance. “In most cases, it’s a lateral career move at best,” she said.

While Brooke, like several others interviewed, said he hopes to return to Montana, he echoed Reichert’s findings in saying he was unsure if his career path will make that possible. Outside of MSU and a few Bozeman biotech firms, there are few avenues in the state for the biomedical research he aspires to do.

However, he dreams of coming back to the state to found a medical school, despite being laughed at when he shared this hope with a medical school selection committee. “It’s an incredibly naive thing to say,” he admitted, pointing to the resources required by medical programs and Montana’s participation in a medical exchange program through the University of Washington, but “I hope [they] remember those laughs.”

“The people that come to Montana and the people in Montana are some of the best people in the world,” he said. “What if we had a med school here?”

Space to grow

“I’m just so grateful for good people,” Bandstra said, explaining she feels an obligation to give back to the state. “I feel like I’ve been given so much.”

She said that she sees people come back to Livingston after having “done their time” in larger companies for a few years after finishing their degrees. “As young people, we’re afraid to create those jobs now,” she said, explaining that people seem to feel like they need experience elsewhere before they can start businesses in Montana.

Carroll, however, has forged a course able to take him back to his hometown. After graduating with his undergraduate paleontology degree from MSU, he accepted a curating job at the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, his hometown.

This summer, Carroll and a team of MSU students will work to build the science museum into a community cultural center, with the hope that the institution can become a tourism draw and educational resource in the coming years — developing it “into the museum Ekalaka deserves.”

“I want to go back because I want to build something, and I know that they will help me build it,” he said. “If I can do a project that is worthwhile and meaningful, why wouldn’t I do it in Ekalaka?”

He also noted the uniqueness afforded by the opportunity to work in his hometown in both its size and resources, as well as the relative freedom to build the museum as he wishes. “I have the opportunity to create a museum, which you just don’t get anywhere else,” he said.

“The more I go through this process” he noted, “the more it becomes apparent to me what an opportunity it was just to stay in-state.”

Bandstra echoed his thoughts, saying that the support provided by smaller communities’ relationships makes things possible that wouldn’t be in places with more competition. “There’s space to grow things,” she said “and do good things”

Editor’s note: Matt Smith and Nate Carroll are former Exponent staff members.