Home: A Blend of Communities
Two weeks into my summer abroad with Semester at Sea, I found myself on a beach in Italy, looking out across the Mediterranean. The old adage is true: When you run off to the sea, you discover who you are. But what surprised me the most was I also gained a sense of place, an appreciation for history. A fellow traveler, recognizing the look in my eyes told me this: “Travel is wonderful and must be done, but home will always call you to return.”
I thought of the ranch I am from in Wyoming, and the wonderful community I had found in Bozeman. Home was a blend of the two — a perspective Montana had given me.
I fell in love with Bozeman first, and Montana State later. It is one of my favorite stories — how a storm caused my mother and I to arrive on campus too late for the last tour of the day. I remember waking up the next morning to find the rain gone and a breathtaking view of mountains all around. I didn’t return to campus until I moved into my new dorm room. At Catapalooza, I found myself saying “yes” at many different booths.
Coming from out of state meant I had the opportunity to start over and make a new home for myself. There is a certain amount of risk in choosing to get involved — getting excellent grades becomes much more difficult when you devote less time to studies.
Despite the possible academic cost, I chose to split my time between campus and Bozeman, working for the Exponent and volunteering with Eagle Mount and CAP Mentoring. From those experiences and more, I learned about life and myself — about the importance of leaving your comfort zone and learning to work with and trust those around you.
Looking back on my life here, I remember the people the most, the connections I’ve made and the memories we share. What we all have in common is a sense of place, a home and a passion for these mountains and this community. While on Semester at Sea, I felt proud to say I was from Montana, my adopted state. A land of big sky and good people who want to make a difference in the world and go ahead and do so.
Mountains and their People
A few minutes after the conclusion of my high school graduation, at the end of my childhood in suburban Oregon, I was approached by another graduate’s father. I might have met him once before in passing, I think, but his name and face are long faded from memory half a decade later.
His words, spoken with a certain bluntness that giddy June evening, have stuck. “Tell me, Eric — and I’m asking what we all want to know, of course,” he asked. “Why Montana?”
His tone conveyed the rest of the question: “You’re a smart kid, graduating with plenty of academic honors. I bet you could be off to Harvard or Stanford, or Brown at the very least. And you’re passing that up for this public school in some backwater state you’ve visited twice?”
“Don’t you know what you’re throwing away? You could be successful, you know.”
I responded, I think, by mumbling something about mountains, then shrinking away into the crowd. If I had a more complete answer, I couldn’t yet put it in words. Why Montana? Indeed.
Some years later, I found myself thinking back to that conversation as I sat in a high-rise Seattle law office preparing to interview for a Rhodes Scholarship — competing for what is perhaps the world’s most prestigious graduate fellowship alongside finalists educated by the universities to which I was expected to aspire.
Alone, in the tense moments before my interview, I remember staring at the yellow legal pad bearing my scattered thoughts. Reaching for a way to collect myself, I turned to a fresh page and began to list the people who had inspired my life over the years, filling line after line with block letters chiseled in blue ink.
A few names from my hometown — high school teachers, scout leaders, my parents. A few more met along assorted travels. But most, I found, from a particular university in Bozeman: professors, staff and, beyond all else, my peers. Fellow members of MSU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter, willing to pour heart and soul into the cause of a community on the far side of the world. The team of part-time journalists who saved this newspaper from bankruptcy. And so, so many others, happy to share their wisdom, laughter and friendship.
I stopped when my list hit 60, but could have kept going. My eyes were moist as I was called to face the selection committee.
While I didn’t get the scholarship in the end — beat out by an MSU classmate — I don’t know that I needed it. Instead, I emerged from the crucible with an answer, realizing finally that I came to this last best place, and found a home here, because of the mountains’ people.
As I prepare to move on to the next stage of my life, I find myself pondering Charles Wheelan’s advice to measure success by the number of college friends you’re still close to 10 or 20 years after commencement. If there is a more fitting metric for our land-grant university, I have yet to find it. After all — if my peers are Montana’s future, then that’s something worth being part of.