Skiing the ridge at Bridger Bowl with friends.

College Spotlight – Montana State University

Freshman Year Update

By Bailey Servais
June, 2018

I worked with Ryan during my junior and senior year while I was at Lakeville North High School. My list of colleges was scattered all around the country, from Bates College in Maine, to Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, in search of something that would not only provide a solid academic challenge, but would provide numerous outdoor recreation opportunities, especially skiing. This led me to choose Montana State University in Bozeman. I just finished my freshman year, and here are a few of my experiences.

To give MSU some context, it’s located in Bozeman, which is in southwest Montana. Bozeman has roughly 50,000 people and steadily growing. It’s definitely a “college town,” with MSU having about 14,000 undergrads and is a huge part of the community and economy. Bozeman lies in a valley, so mountains surround you on nearly all sides, and, if you’re lucky, your dorm room will provide a perfect view of at least one of the mountain ranges. In terms of politics, Bozeman definitely leans slightly left, especially with regards to environmental issues. However, there is a solid right-leaning population, consisting mostly of ranchers, farmers, and miners, which provide a refreshing mix of “granola” people and cowboys.

The majority of the culture, however, revolves around the outdoor recreation, both at MSU and in Bozeman itself. Rock climbing, mountain biking, fly fishing, trail running, and hiking are the most common non-winter-season activities. They’re easily accessible and you won’t have any issue finding someone to come along with you or finding someone to take you for the first time. Most people are stoked to bring someone along and show them the ropes of something they’ve never done before (quite literally in the case of rock climbing). One of my fondest memories is when a few climbers from my dorm floor and I convinced nearly everyone else on the floor to come climbing at the campus bouldering gym. Many of those we brought with us fell in love with climbing, and still actively do it today.

In the winter, skiing and ice climbing are the most common activities. I’ve never ice climbed before, but Hyalite Canyon (about 30 minutes from campus) is world renown for its ice climbing. Conrad Anker, a world-famous climber and mountaineer who lives in Bozeman, taught a class second semester about climate change’s effects on mountaineering, and took the whole class ice climbing with him. Skiing, however, I can comment significantly more on. Bridger Bowl, a non-profit ski area, is by far some of the best skiing I’ve ever experienced in my life. Being only 30 minutes away, the free bus service that runs on the weekends, and some classes that I didn’t mind skipping, I skied numerous 10+ inches powder days this season. I could write for days about how awesome Bridger Bowl is, but the backcountry ski opportunities are equal in quality. Additionally, Big Sky Resort is only about an hour away, but that is much less common to go to for students.

Friend of mine climbing at Bear Canyon, a 20 minute drive from campus.

Friend of mine climbing at Bear Canyon, a 20 minute drive from campus.

Unfortunately, most of these activities require having a car on campus or knowing someone who has a car. I didn’t have a car, but a few of my friends did, and I knew enough people who did, that finding a ride to go on an adventure was never really an issue. However, Bozeman and MSU provide numerous non-outdoor opportunities as well. Main Street, or “downtown,” is a super cute and historic street about a 30-minute walk from campus. It has several local coffee shops, bookstores, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, and theaters. I was most often on Main Street studying in a coffee shop with friends. It’s a great and accessible way to get off-campus, listen to the occasional live music performance, and study in a place other than the MSU library. Additionally, there is a trail system called “Main Street to the Mountain” run by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust that runs all through and around Bozeman, and is a great way to get a good trail run or bike in, and doesn’t require a car.

A little about academics, because, let’s be honest, that’s really why we’re in college, even though it’s easy to forget in Bozeman. I’m currently majoring in environmental science and minoring in statistics, and enrolled in the honors college. MSU has a really strong environmental science department, as well as geology, earth science, engineering, and snow science. If you’re interested in geology, in particular, the Museum of the Rockies is a 10-minute walk from campus and provides amazing opportunities. Additionally, MSU is one of the only schools in the country that has a snow science major/concentration, and has a really fascinating sub-zero lab, where they can make snow and study its structure and physics. The snow science department has awesome faculty that are also really involved with the backcountry skiing community to teach avalanche awareness and conduct avalanche safety classes. In terms of my own major, I haven’t really gotten quite into the meat of it yet, it’s mostly been prerequisites. MSU took all my AP credits, so I was basically done with my core credits.

With regards to the honors college, I have only good things to say. The dean of the honors college, Dr. Ilse-Mari Lee, will stop at nothing to provide her students with the best opportunities and education. Additionally, when you’re in the honors college, you have the option of living in honors housing. I lived in South Hedges on the honors floor, which I fully expected to be quiet and extremely studious. This did not end up being the case. It ended up being known as the most social floor on campus, and it ended up being the place where I met most of my good friends. It was not only a great way to meet people, but the students who lived there were (for the most part) focused and worked hard academically, but they also knew how to spend time outside and time away from the library.

South Hedges third floor holiday party before break.

South Hedges third floor holiday party before break.

While the classes can be academically challenging, the thing that I think most students struggle with is finding the balance. That balance being between school and spending time outdoors. Not going to lie, I’ve skipped a good number of classes to go skiing or climbing. Not that I’m encouraging it, but if you know how to handle making up some notes or doing some extra work, it’s definitely manageable. In fact, second semester is often called the “ski-mester” because students, including myself, organize their schedules in a way that allows them to have 1-3 days during the week where they have time to go up and ski.

In terms of being involved in campus and campus events, you can kind of be as involved as you choose. I was treasurer of the Science Policy Advocacy Network (SPAN), a member of Sustainability NOW (SNOW), and a member of the Alpine Ski Racing Club, and while I loved my involvement in these clubs, there were many other clubs that I wanted to be a part of, but, in the end, there is only so much time in the day. So, more often than not, you will find yourself struggling to choose which opportunity to take, rather than trying to find something that fits your interests.

Friends and I at the Bozeman Women’s March

Friends and I at the Bozeman Women’s March

So, now for the not-so-good stuff. I really wished that MSU, and Montana in general, was more diverse. Racially, ethnically, religiously, etc. Bozeman, and Montana in general, is very white and Christian. Another thing I found myself missing was accessibility to the cities. Not that Bozeman can’t provide everything you would ever need and then some, but once you get out of Bozeman, the closest town is Belgrade, which is only a few thousand people. However, the mountains have taken the place of the big cities, which is a trade-off that I am enthusiastically willing to take. Additionally, there is not a huge school sports scene, but you can be as involved as you want. Don’t get me wrong, there is still school pride, but most sporting events are free for students, so students will go for maybe the first half then leave, but the crowds are mostly alumni or other members of the Bozeman community. Like any college, there are going to be pros and cons to being there, and MSU is no different. However, the positives outweigh the negatives, and my decision to go here was only confirmed by the positive experiences I have had.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me at