University of Montana puts on Whistle-Stop Tour

Now arriving on platform two: a college education.

The University of Montana, in an effort to attract students and promote its new financial aid program, sent officials, faculty, and student representatives on a three-day, whistle-stop train tour across the state earlier this month.

The university held receptions at depots in Billings, Livingston and Helena, where university officials gave presentations to high school students who were able to get their questions answered aboard the train.

“This tour promoted both the University of Montana and education in the state of Montana,” said Cedric Jacobson, a student at the university and vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana.

Jacobson, one of the student representatives that traveled on the train, mentioned how college could seem daunting to an average high-school student and that one of the goals of the tour was to allay those concerns.

“I think it’s an effective outreach tour,” he said. “It’s comforting for high school students to see students, professors and deans just being themselves.”

Andrea Helling, president of ASUM, agreed.

“The opportunity to connect with communities and share some of our best professors with local schools was a tremendously rewarding experience,” she said. “It was fun to be along on the trip as a student because Cedric and I got to talk to prospective students and parents.”

One of the programs introduced to parents and students aboard the train was Montana Partnering for Affordable College Tuition, a program aimed at helping students from low- and medium-income families get an undergraduate education.

“I was one of several people involved in creating a need-based financial aid program for students in Montana,” said Mick Hanson, the university’s director of financial aid. He and others were tasked with creating the program by University President George Dennison.

The MPACT program, the result of their efforts, incorporates federal grants, work-study funds and institutional grants to help fund students’ education.

Dennison had been so concerned with the affordability of the university that his primary remarks on the tour dealt with the MPACT program, Hanson said.
Taking to the rails in style was a new twist on an old plan for a university that has frequently relied on recruiting trips. The refurbished Silver Cloud, a deluxe ’50s-era train car, certainly attracted attention as it rolled into its destinations.

“The university always takes part in a lot of outreach programs around the state,” Jacobson said. “We had the opportunity to remake the tour on a train. It was nice for promotional value. It cost us very little.”

The unique tour was funded by Dennis and Phyllis Washington, the largest benefactors of the university. The couple has donated millions in scholarships and provided much of the money for a new football stadium. Mrs. Washington is an alumna of the university.

For those involved, the tour succeeded in spreading the message it set out to promote.

“I think it was a tremendously successful way to deliver a message that graduating seniors at high schools in Montana can attend a public university without a high debt load,” said Hanson.

“We would love to do it again,” said Jacobson.

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