Nestled in beautiful Missoula, The University of Montana is "a great place to live, work, and study." Indeed, Montana's awesome location and solid reputation coupled with low in-state tuition make it "hard to beat." Moreover, while it has a substantial number of students, we're assured that you're never "just a number" here. Undergrads also appreciate the university's focus on "environmental sustainability…and social justice" along with the fact that the University of Montana strives to develop "creative thinkers and engaged citizens." While the university maintains a fantastic liberal arts program, students especially laud the wildlife biology, forestry, physical therapy, and forensic anthropology departments. Moreover, undergrads at Montana are highly complementary of their teachers who are generally "helpful, engaging, and accessible." One thrilled student claims that the professors are "amazing! Math and science has never come easy for me, and my professors have taught in a way I completely understand the material." Another enthusiastic student summarizes her experience by stating, "The professors here are very knowledgeable and passionate about what they are teaching, because of this, the learning experience is always interesting and inviting. I truly appreciate all the effort that is put forward to help students succeed and prepare for the next steps in their life."
The University of Montana attracts a student body that's "pretty laid-back and easygoing." Many are "outdoorsy" and self-described as "hippies." Indeed, there are "quite a few granola kids" and "Carhartt-sporting, plaid-proud, future biologists" types. Though many students hail from within the state, one undergrad assures us that "increasing diversity efforts have begun to show in the past three years." Fortunately, for the most part, everyone is "accepting, friendly, and very involved in college and community life." Another student expands on this idea, stating, "People here do not seem to judge others or hold stereotypes against each other. If you're lost or need to ask a question you can ask anyone, and they're willing to give you the best answer they know in order to help you out even if they don't know you." A fellow undergrad agrees softly, sharing, "I feel like I've stepped into a melting pot of all beliefs and ideals. You can be yourself, and never be looked down on for that at this school."
Undergrads seem to truly enjoy life at U of M. Indeed, the campus is often buzzing with activity. As one student happily shares, "When it's not snowing in the fall or spring you can find people playing Frisbee, walking their dogs, catching footballs, and even playing with lightsabers." Additionally, there are "many music concerts and dance parties" one can attend. "Football is [also] really big here," and games are often packed with students. Beyond the campus, Montana offers a myriad of options for the outdoor enthusiast. As one ecstatic undergrad tells us, "Western Montana is a divine place for hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, snowshoeing, swimming, huckleberry picking, going to hot springs, mushroom picking, antler collecting, and just being immersed in nature. Near where I live there is access to the Rattlesnake Wilderness, mountains surround the valley, and the Clark Fork River runs right through town." Those with a more adventurous spirit can delight in "skiing and skydiving, hand gliding and parasailing, mountain climbing and repelling, caving and biking." As this pleased undergrad summarizes, "There is always something to do no matter what your interest are and great people to do them with."
Zhibing "Cara" Zhou can still smell the herbs wafting through the apartment as her grandfather sifted them into fine powder on the balcony.
Back from collecting medicinal plants in the mountains of China, Grandfather Pang would line up the herbs and prepare them to be in pastes and potions to help friends, family members and neighbors with ailments.
"People would say, 'Can I give you some money?' He would say, 'No, no, no,' " Zhou said.
Sometimes, he would accept fresh fruit or a carton of eggs.
Zhou, just 5 or 6 years old then, recalls her grandfather's quiet generosity and his happiness in helping others, and she's since associated those characteristics with medicine. She recently wrote about her grandpa in an essay.
"In his hands, medicine and kindness became one," said Zhou in the piece.
Several years later, she met her stepfather, a doctor, and he gave her orthopedic shoes that corrected her back problems. At the time, she didn't even speak English, but they formed a bond that would grow deep.
"As my grandfather to neighbors, my stepfather to me, medicine had no boundaries, delivering relief where it was needed," Zhou wrote.
Coming up on graduation, Zhou has a 4.0 grade point average at the University of Montana, and in August, she heads to medical school to become a doctor, melding the science that fuels her mind with the kindness in her heart.
Zhou was accepted into the University of Washington School of Medicine and will begin her studies in Bozeman.
"To me, the purpose of medicine is to help people, make them feel better, happier ... ," Zhou said.
"The science part I really love. My line of thinking is logical and analytical. But also, I appreciate the opportunity to connect with others."
Zhou's family started applying for a visa to the United States when she was in elementary school, and it finally came through when she was in her sophomore year of high school.
She graduated from high school in the San Francisco Bay area, and in the United States, she started learning American ways.
At first, she'd stop for cars as she tried to walk across the street, and she'd be confused seeing them stop for her, a pedestrian.
"Oh, right. I get to go first," she'd remind herself.
In China, people engage with each other in a more reserved way, and she learned to adjust her interpersonal interactions too.
"That's a learning curve," Zhou said.
Her stepdad used to practice in Montana, and when it came time to choose a college, they toured UM, and the decision was easy. She was charmed by the winter and the people.
In Montana, she saw snow for the first time, and she reveled in the calm and quiet of the season.
"I remember that first snow that I saw was in Glacier park. It was just beautiful. It was like in a painting," Zhou said.
On the campus visit, she and her dad got lost, and a UM guide came to her to lead her to the right place. She figured that wouldn't happen at a larger university.
"That made a strong impression on me. If I came here, I would have a lot more attention or help from professors," she said.
Zhou wasn't totally unfamiliar with the Grizzlies, either. On her stepdad's first visit to China, he brought her a long-sleeved Grizzlies T-Shirt, maroon with a small pawprint. It was too big for her to wear, but she kept it.
"I was meant to come here," Zhou said.
As a student at UM, Zhou cracked up her roommate with her love for snow. She doesn't ski, but she ice skates in winter and tromps through the snow and is otherwise delighted by the season, as she is with school.
"I truly love the academic system here, and I really thrived and found my passion," she said.
It took her a little bit to get there, though. Zhou describes medicine as her guiding North Star, but she wasn't always sure of the exact direction it would lead.
As a freshman at UM, she didn't declare a major at first, and she took different science classes to see what she'd like best.
"I really found a niche in biochemistry, molecular biology," she said.
She said faculty gave her the flexibility and support to explore different options and pursue undergraduate research, and she gained confidence and experience. She grew as a person.
"Then, I applied to medical school and went for an interview. It's a long process. It's mentally draining, a little bit," Zhou said.
But long before she expected to hear word on her application, she got a call from a faculty member with the WWAMI Medical Education Program, a partnership with the UW School of Medicine and the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. She was accepted, and at first, she was overjoyed.
She hopped in the car to head to her parents' place — they live in Missoula now — and on her way over, she broke down crying. She'd had doubts before, but her goal was in her sights.
"Oh, my gosh. I am going to be a doctor."
UM Professor Erick Greene believes Zhou will be the best kind of medical doctor. Some students go into medicine for the money, but Zhou truly wants to help people, he said. Already, she has helped homeless people and has served as a peer adviser on campus.
"What I've been really, really impressed with is her really clear and strong ethical compass about helping people for the right reasons, and often, disadvantaged people," Greene said.
She also brings cultural diversity to the field, and with it, a different perspective on the importance and relevance of medicine. He read her piece about medicine and was inspired by her admiration for her grandfather's compassion and the stories about American doctors working in Asia.
"When I read her essay, I had to get out the Kleenex. It was really powerful for me," Greene said.
Zhou talks about giving back, too, but she's convinced she's benefited more than those she's helped. In school, she tutored other students as a peer leader in chemistry, and she was glad to connect with people outside her social circle and also learn the material by communicating it.
"I am volunteering, but also, I feel like I gain a lot more than I give back," she said.
She used her spring break a couple of years ago to help homeless people in Portland, Oregon, with Emmaus Campus Ministry. She handed out food, distributed donated items, delivered warm drinks to people in the morning, and talked with them.
The conversations taught her about hunger, prejudice, lack of shelter, and inaccessibility to health care.
"From this service experience, I learned about the growing disparity between the homeless and the rest of society. Personally, the most meaningful experience was to engage in conversations with people I met during my service, to learn about their stories and to relate to them," Zhou wrote in an email about the trip.
Zhou never lost sight of the way medicine has the power to create connections, the lesson her grandfather first taught her. She credits her parents, Ying Pang and Reid Thompson, with helping her develop into a person ready — nearly ready, minus some play time this summer — to dive into medical school.
Already, Zhou has shadowed doctors with different specialties, surgery, internal medicine, family medicine.
"I just find that I got excited about everything, so I'll just have to keep an open mind," she said.
She'll go step by step, and she'll also give herself some time to replenish. This summer, she wants to spend time with her family, enjoy a break, go on road trips with friends, and visit Glacier National Park again, even without the snow.
"I really want to make this break for my family and myself and my friends because I will enter another very busy period of my life," she said. "I just want to take it all in and be ready and fresh and ready to go."