A passion for the possible
April 26, 2011
Kim Schweikert, MSU Billings Downtown, 896-5888
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269
Top MSU Billings senior hopes to pursue new ways to seek justice
“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” - Robert F. Kennedy
Coffees in one hand, text devices in the other and backpacks slung over shoulders, students move with a sense of purpose from one building to the next at Montana State University Billings. It’s one of those busy days where thoughts range from lack of sleep to a surplus of homework.
The river of humanity snakes around small clutches of conversation and seems to pause a bit at one student with a cause.
It’s Jen Gross. Tall, slender and with a smile from ear to ear, she’s handing out information about animal rights and veganism. Some fellow students politely maneuver around her. The curious take a pamphlet. A few friends stop to offer encouragement.
She welcomes all of it.
Being an animal liberation activist in a state that values Angus steaks can be a lonely existence. But for Gross, it’s all a part of her passion to bring change and justice to an unyielding world.
Her passion for transformation, her academic achievements and her community involvement combined to earn Gross recognition as one of two Outstanding Senior recipients at MSU Billings for the 2010-11 academic year. She was also chosen as this year’s Golden Merit Award recipient, honoring one student for outstanding scholarship, leadership and community service.
An honors student who is graduating this weekend with a degree in environmental studies, Gross has spent much of her academic career not only earning a 3.96 GPA, but also cutting her teeth on larger issues. Her main interest is working at the intersection of feminism and animal liberation and has gained some attention to her cause by her unwavering commitment.
“I have always been the sort of person who, once committed to something (or someone), will throw my whole self into learning as much as I can, educating, organizing, promoting justice and garnering support,” she said. “So it is that I became an animal rights activist, although I had long thought of myself as an environmentalist and human rights advocate.”
A Billings native and the oldest of three siblings, Gross’ path to a college degree was not a straight line. She graduated from Senior High School in 2001 and went to Nevada for college for about a year, but was still undecided about her future.
“I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” she said. “So I took a break. And that one-year break turned into five.”
Stints waiting tables back in Billings and working summers alongside international students at Yellowstone and Teton national parks, opened her eyes to other possibilities, she said. She enrolled at MSU Billings in the spring of 2008, had 12 credits on her schedule but still little idea of her future.
She credits a one of her first classes in that first semester with changing her life.
“My very first class at MSUB was Lisa Kemmerer’s “Philosophy 115: Ethics,” she remembers. “One of the topics we covered was animal rights, and I began to think very critically about my own values in relation to my diet. To make a long story short, I learned all the ugly details and plain reality about where our food comes from and I honestly thought, for the first time, about how animals are raised and killed for food.”
That was her tippingpoint, the time she decided that “because I don’t need to eat animal foods to live and be healthy, I could not in good conscience continue to eat animal foods and contribute to such awful, exploitative industries.”
Kemmerer, an associate professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she remembers the transformation. Looking back three years ago, she can remember that day “watching Jen struggle —visibly in turmoil — when she learned of the environmental degradation that is inherent in eating animal products.”
Since that point, Gross, 28, moved from simply being a student, to being a student activist, intent on speaking up for those who cannot always speak for themselves.
She founded the first MSU Billings student organization focusing on animal welfare (All Lives with Liberty), participated in vegan outreach efforts and worked on collecting signatures for a statewide ballot initiative on trapping.
Her research and academic work impressed faculty members so much that she was invited to participate in various symposiums, presented at the National Animal Advocacy Conference in Minneapolis in 2008 and 2010 and last year was chosen from among 2,600 students to speak at the 24th National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Missoula. She also worked as a mentor for Student Opportunity Services and contributed articles for The Retort.
“Jen has an incredible spirit — an incredible abundance of dynamic, positive energy,” said Kemmerer. “I hope that learning about ethics — justice and oppression of women, farmed animals, gays, Natives, and other races — helps to channel this energy into positive change. And I think this has already happened.”
As a professor, Kemmerer said she encourages students to gather information, ponder all the issues and form their own opinions.
“All that Jen needed was information. She is one of those rare people who takes new information, tests it, and if it proves valuable, allows it to change her life,” Kemmerer said.
While her college experience changed her life, Gross is now focused on changing lives of others.
She will enter graduate school at St. Cloud State University and studying areas of women’s studies, sociology and global studies, plans on earning an upper level degree in the area of social responsibility.
That completed, Gross said her vision is to open a holistic rehabilitative center for women trying to escape domestic violence.
“I want to work with women to develop a set of skills, empowering them in a number of ways: to stay out of abusive relationships, to gain the self-confidence to be independent, and to make informed decisions about breaking cycles of violence,” she said.
Instead of a short-term approach to dealing with domestic violence, Gross said she wants to address “the systemic issues of violence that plague society and drive violence against women.”
Her vision is to empower women by teaching nonviolence, compassion and sustainability through diet. It goes back to her values as a vegan that violence — all forms against all animals — is wrong and should be addressed.
“My theory is that these values will be more easily applied to personal relationships once they are being applied to something as routine and influential as diet,” she said.
Kemmerer said she watching Gross grow as a student was rewarding on many levels.
“Many students are disinterested, some are downright rude,” Kemmerer said. “Bumping into just one student like Jen somehow balances the scales and makes teaching once again a positive experience.”
Looking back at her education arc at MSU Billings, Gross said she initially resisted coming to her hometown university. The lure of leaving home and discovering her path was strong, but she eventually found the journey of discovery was just down the street from her childhood home.
“I’ve never been so glad to be wrong about something in my life,” she said.
PHOTO ABOVE: Jen Gross, left, and Dr. Lisa Kemmerer, associate professor of philosophy, are photographed in Kemmerer’s office recently. Gross’ work as a student earned her the Golden Merit Award for the 2010-11 academic year.