Jennifer Gross didn’t know where she was headed when she first went to college after high school.
Gross, 28, grew up in Billings, graduating from Billings Senior High in 2001.
After attending the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for two years, she decided to take a year off. That year stretched into five years before she enrolled at Montana State University Billings in the spring of 2008.
It didn’t take long for her to discover her passion — the environment and righting social injustices.
Since then, she’s wrung out every second of her time at the campus on the hill. She’s studied hard, been active in campus organizations, volunteered in the community and made presentations out of town.
Gross will graduate Saturday, April 30, with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. During an April 28 convocation, she will be recognized as a Golden Merit Award winner and one of two outstanding seniors. She’ll also receive the Environmental Studies Citizenship Award.
A pivotal moment in Gross’ education came in Lisa Kemmerer’s ethics class while reading the book “Empty Cages” by Tom Regan about the exploitation of animals.
After learning more about where her food came from, Gross became a vegan. She eats no meat or animal products such as dairy or eggs.
“All of those foods do things to animals you wouldn’t want done to you,” she said.
During that semester, she realized she could do something about issues close to her heart.
Last year, she was the opinion editor for the school newspaper, The Retort, writing about such topics as capital punishment, health care and large-scale farming. She also addressed feminism, a subject that some students don’t understand, she said.
“People characterize feminists as whiny women who can’t get a man,” she said. “But feminism is an awesome thing. It comes down to gender equality. It’s not any more radical than that.”
She’s also taken up the cause of “ecofeminism,” the combination of ecological thought and feminism. The exploitation of women is related to the exploitation of the Earth because they share an underlying attitude of domination, she said.
Gross has worked hard to educate others about her points of view.
She has lectured in several MSU Billings classes and participated in an annual women’s forum on campus each spring.
“Her presentations are always polished and thoughtful, and students are appropriately appreciative,” wrote Kemmerer in a letter recommending Gross for the Golden Merit Award.
Gross also made two presentations at a Minnesota animal-rights conference about how intensive livestock production affects the environment and addressed the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Missoula.
She organized an animal-rights group on campus, through which she presented “gentle Thanksgivings” giving away plant-based holiday foods like tofurkey.
She was active in the Environmental Awareness Club and set up programs for World Farm Animal Day to raise awareness of farm animals and highlight plant-based alternatives. She’s active off campus, too, volunteering for Northern Plains Resource Council and Planned Parenthood projects.
She led the Billings effort in an unsuccessful statewide petition drive to get an initiative on the ballot to ban trapping on public lands.
Gross did an internship with a political consulting firm this semester and worked on Kendall Van Dyk’s Montana Senate campaign last fall.
She admits that Van Dyk hasn’t voted the way she would have wanted on every issue.
“He’s a hunter, and I’m a flaming vegan,” she said.
MSU Billings never has been known as a hotbed of liberal activism, a fact that hasn’t stopped Gross from reaching out to other students or dimmed her optimism about changing the status quo.
She knows that many MSU Billings students are from ranching communities, which may predispose them to have different views than hers.
One time when Gross was handing out information about being a vegan, a male student began yelling at her, demanding that she tell the other side of the story.
A year later, Gross and the male student spent several hours driving to Butte on a field trip and wound up having an intelligent, philosophical discussion.
“That’s what I like the most is having conversations with people,” she said.
Gross’ enthusiasm, cheerful demeanor and ability to discuss her views with a disarming smile work in her favor. She also works tirelessly.
“Her most fortunate gift is her energy,” Kemmerer said.
Gross enjoys cooking, walks with her blue heeler, Dexter, and spending time with her two young nieces.
Gross plans to apply to graduate school at St. Cloud University in Minnesota for a master’s of applied science in social responsibility.
She’s interested in studying the relationship between violence against women and violence in meat-eating cultures, she said.