Honor Student Seizes Every Opportunity

From the moment she arrived at the University of Montana in 2010, Helena native Mara Menahan has been making the most of her UM experience.

Her essay on Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” won the First Year Reading Experience essay contest. She enrolled in the Davidson Honors College and joined a First Year Interest Group called “Thinking Green,” which inspired her to major in environmental studies.

In the summer of 2011 she joined instructor Nicky Phear on a bike ride across Bhutan to see the effects of climate change there. Two years later, she represented UM at the United Nations global climate change negotiations in Warsaw. She added another major — in geography — and minors in climate change studies and wilderness studies. She has won a Udall Scholarship, a Newman Civic Fellowship and, most recently, a Truman Scholarship.

As she anticipates her graduation in December, we asked Mara about her time at UM and what’s next.

You have accomplished so much since you arrived on campus. What has been the most meaningful part of your time at UM?
Even though I’ve had all of these amazing opportunities to travel for my studies, the fact that I have the chance to work in the West, studying the land issues that I want to be working with the rest of my life, is actually the most meaningful. I’m part of the local community, and I’ve had all these amazing opportunities to work on environmental issues here in Missoula.

I’ve been working with Montana Audubon on a visual communication project to tell the story of birds and climate change in Montana. I created maps and science illustrations for posters, and now we are working on a website.

Tell us why you’re so passionate about environmental studies and climate change research.
I come from a really long history of people living in Montana doing everything from farming to teaching to politics. The thing that ties everyone together is a love of the landscape. I’ve come to realize that Montana’s landscape is so much a part of my identity. How could I not work on these issues that shape Montana?

You’ve been in the Davidson Honors College since freshman year. How did DHC impact your education?

DHC was huge. It was one of the biggest reasons for me coming to UM. Hands down, the best thing is the investment of the teachers and the advisors. It’s a place where students can find mentors, can pursue independent research projects, really dive deep, follow some question that’s really burning and find an academic sponsor for that. I’ve been so lucky to have really close, dedicated mentors.

I love the “Ways of Knowing” class, which is required for all DHC freshmen. I’ve had a chance to take classes outside of my field, in Shakespeare and poetry. It’s given a liberal arts roundedness to my education.

Your Truman Scholarship provides up to $30,000 to fund your graduate education. What’s next for you?
I’m feeling pretty certain that what I want to do is based in the arts. I want to be an illustrator, so I plan to go on and get an MFA. I’d like to use science illustration, maps and nature journaling to educate and inspire people about local environmental issues.