In 2007, Jenifer Gursky was volunteering with children in Cambodia when she realized she didn't have the skills she needed to deal with the poverty issues that confronted her. So she applied to the University of Montana from a computer kiosk in Phnom Penh.
Last month, Rep. Gursky, a Democrat representing northwestern Missoula’s House District 98, saw her first bill pass the House. House Bill 131 aims to help children lead a better life by requiring doctors, teachers and other professionals report suspected abuse.
“I have become incredibly driven for working on behalf of the public,” Gursky said of her new job. “There is no higher calling than to work for people.”
She added in an email that she is still learning how to fulfill her duty as a voice of her peers “with dignity, grace, patience, and humility.”
After studying vocal performance in Wyoming, Gursky returned home to Polson to become a youth pastor. She joined Youth With a Mission and the group sent her to Amsterdam to work with victims of human trafficking in the Red Light District and study for similar work in Cambodia.
“I wasn’t really interested in politics initially,” Gursky said. “But I was really interested in how policy affects our lives.”
She didn’t wait for graduation to dive deeper into politics. She began her political career at UM, preceding Zach Brown as president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana.
Brown said Gursky was a dedicated mentor as he began his term, even while she was in the heat of her campaign for the House last fall.
He said Gursky’s powerful leadership as president paved the way for ASUM to deal more professionally with administrators, politicians and the Board of Regents.
Gursky graduated last May with a degree in political science emphasizing international relations and a minor in international development studies – just three weeks before winning the Democratic primary for HD-98.
When it comes to getting involved, Gursky, 32, advises students to be bold.
“Don’t dip your toe in, just jump,” she said. “Any campaign that you can help in, any way that you can get connected in your community. Politics is really a hands-on sport.”
But it’s not a sport for everyone, which Brown has learned. He said a career in politics used to interest him, but his current post has made him reconsider. The job didn’t have that effect on Gursky.
“She’s got the personality for it and she’s really good at what she does,” Brown said of his predecessor. “And she likes it and that’s amazing.”
Though politics may suit her, Brown said Gursky is not a typical politician.
“I really trust that she genuinely has students’ interests in mind,” Brown said. “You can't always know that kind of thing with politicians.”
Another of her projects, known as the Smart Buildings Initiative, is a collaboration with Brown and other student leaders that she started working on last spring.
Brown said the bill would encourage retrofitting state-owned buildings to improve their energy efficiency. The buildings’ owners, such as universities, for example, would get to keep the money they save on energy costs and use it for future projects to improve other buildings.
The concept is popular, Brown said, but so complex that it has taken a year to iron out the details. They’ve just finished drafting the bill and Brown said a House committee should review it before the end of the month.
Gursky also plans to introduce bills dealing with human trafficking in Montana, adoption laws and landlord-tenant issues, among others.
After moving to Helena for the legislative session, Gursky said she misses Missoula’s sense of community, as well as some local restaurants and breweries.
“I’m not really a big going-out person, but I would kill for a good Cold Smoke,” Gursky said. “They don’t sell it in Helena and it’s killing me.”