By Jessianne WrighEBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – Fourteen students from Westminster College rolled into the Missouri Headwaters State Park northwest of Bozeman on Sept. 6, packed into a passenger van and minivan, one pulling a trailer. The crew pulled out their tents and settled in for their 15th night out on the road.

Accompanied by professors Jeff Nichols and Brent Olson, these Salt Lake City-based students came to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to learn about the West as a part of the inaugural Westminster Expedition.

“The goal was to have a really extended field study course,” said Olson, who teaches environmental studies at Westminster.

For 12 weeks, these students will travel, tents and notebooks in tow, visiting iconic sites like Yellowstone National Park, working landscapes such as the Butte Copper Mines, Native communities, “New West” towns like Bend and Moab, and contentious places like the Little Bighorn and Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Along the way, the group will speak with experts in the field, from public land managers and the National Park Service, to Native leaders, to ranchers and activists.

“I wanted to expose students to the lands I know and love,” Nichols said. Colored pencils in hand, Nichols said he and Olson sat down with a map and tried to organize places into themes, eventually mapping out a large figure “8” that snakes across Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

The students will receive 16 upper division credits in environmental studies and history at the end of the trip, having studied the themes of environmental cooperation and conflict, landscape and meaning, the history of public lands, and the Native West.

Bozeman was an early stop along the route, and students heard from Montana State University geography professor and renowned author William Wyckoff, as well as history professor Mark Fiege, who is a recipient of the MSU Wallace Stegner Endowed Chair in Western American Studies. Camped along the waters of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers, the students discussed the Lewis and Clark expedition and visited the Madison Buffalo Jump. They also spent time visiting with the team at Headwaters Economics.

Traveling in two vans, a class of 14 students from Westminster College are visiting sites throughout the American West this semester, learning about contemporary issues around public land, Native culture and natural landscapes.

An important aspect of the trip so far for student Naomi Shapiro of Boise, Idaho, is simply being able to learn about the place she calls home. “I’m from the West and I realized I hadn’t seen very much of it,” she said. “One of the very cool things is, we’ve been able to learn some of the stories from different perspectives,” she added, describing the perspectives of Native peoples or women as related to important moments in history.

“The best learning happens when we are immersed in experiences,” Nichols said in a Westminster College press release about the trip. “Traveling to extraordinary places and talking with the people who live and work there will illuminate complex human and environmental issues.” 

In a way that student Bridger Layton described as “poetic,” the group was forced to alter a portion of their route after leaving Bozeman thanks to burning fires in and near Glacier National Park that have caused road closures on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

“A lot of the conversations we have, the things we read, discuss the ways that even in the 21st century, we sort of feel like we have taken over nature,” Layton said. “Fire is just another one of those things that is sort of the upfront example that no matter how hard we try, nature is still going to push us around and we still need to think about the ways we interact with it.”

On Sept. 7, the Westminster students hosted an open reception for high school students interested in learning more about Westminster College. Westminster alumnus Max Lowe, a Bozeman-based photographer, filmmaker, writer and skier, shared his experience at the university and also told current Westminster students of his path after college.

“I think that there are many different paths to the places that you want to go,” Lowe said. “It all comes down to the choices that you make in the moment and there are no wrong choices in the end.”