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Rocky Mountain College students strip old weed mat

Rocky Mountain College students Kelsey Peterson, left, and McKenna Lowe strip lengths of old weed mat from the ground in Wilson Park as part of the school’s Freshman Service Day on Saturday morning. RMC students worked cleaning up the park, which was once leased as a tree farm but has reverted back to the city.

Rocky Mountain College’s incoming freshmen had more than classes and football games on their minds Saturday.

At six spots around Billings, about 300 new students took part in Freshman Service Day, a chance to get out in the community and give their time to a good cause. They were joined by faculty and student peer instructors.

The groups fanned out to Lake Elmo, Family Service Inc., the Community Crisis Center, Friendship House, the HUB and city-owned Wilson Park, off Sugar Avenue. The day is part of a semesterlong Campus Compass Class that seeks to help new students successfully transition to college.

The students meet for 12 weekly classes led by staff members and trained student instructors. The course starts during orientation and continues through most of the first semester.

New students arrived on campus Thursday and will start classes Monday.

Nearly 80 members of Saturday’s service group spent three hours at the South Side park, which had been leased by the previous owners of the Field of Dreams tree farm. The acreage now is overgrown with weeds and filled with dying, potted root-bound trees that need to be removed.

Chris Waite, volunteer coordinator for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, split the Rocky contingent into four groups. Some students pulled black plastic pots out of the ground or removed long swaths of weed mat; some sorted the pots by size for recycling; a third group cut through the forest of weeds; and the others did general cleanup.

Rocky is the third large group the city has recruited to work on the park property since the rehabilitation of the park started in early summer, Waite said. He was glad for the enthusiastic help the students provided.

“It’s really helpful to bring in such a large group because they can really tackle a lot more,” Waite said.

Though it’s uncertain what the city will do with the reclaimed parkland, Waite said removing the weeds and the other clutter will eliminate a fire hazard and spruce up the acreage.

Cynthia Hutchinson, a counselor and instructor at Rocky who also helps teach the Campus Compass Class, worked alongside the students at the park. She sees multiple benefits in Saturday’s service day.

It immediately introduces them to the community, which broadens their college experience, she said, and gives them a chance to get involved. And it helps the students get to know each other.

“The thing we’re focusing on is how they can form connections with their peers and with faculty and staff on campus,” Hutchinson said.

Ramon Ochoa, a sophomore at Rocky, went through the Compass class last year. It helped him so much, he decided to apply to be a peer instructor this year, and he qualified to do just that.

Saturday, Ochoa helped the other students remove weeds. As a peer instructor, he will also help them learn about everything from time management to handling their finances.

“I just hope to help them build a foundation so they can have success,” he said.

Justin Harpster, a freshman from Billings, plans to study physical education this fall. Saturday, he was getting to know other students from all over the country and enjoying partnering with them to make a difference.

“It just kind of teaches us to give back to the community and help out wherever we can,” Harpster said.

Molly Davis, a freshman from Traverse City, Mich., said coming to Rocky was her first time living away from home. Davis, who intends to major in political science and history, liked the idea of a private liberal arts college that had small classes.

Taking part in a day of community service is important, she said, a way to give back. Davis also liked what her first few days at Rocky were doing for her.

“I’ve met so many people,” she said. “I have a lot of friends now and everyone’s really accepting and nice.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.