Elise Young is excited to be graduating this morning in Montana State University's fall commencement ceremony, having finished college in just 3 ½ years.

“It kind of hit me today – it is really a big accomplishment,” Young said Thursday. “I'm kind of finishing one chapter in my life and starting another.”

Young is one of more than 1,100 students receiving degrees in today's ceremony in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

Young and classmates Jacob Leckie, Yida Fang and Bronwyn Rolph are among 18 graduates receiving Honors College degrees, in addition to degrees in their regular college majors.

This is the first graduating class for the Honors College, which the Montana Board of Regents recently elevated from a program to a college.

“I'm very happy I chose MSU,” said Young, 21. She majored in animal science and is applying to veterinary programs. “I've loved animals my whole life.”

At MSU she got experience doing surgery on live mice, an experience she doubts she would have had at other colleges. She took liver samples as part of a study of how adult stem cells allow the body to regenerate. Paper clips served as retractors in the mouse surgeries.

“I've gotten really good at it — 95 percent recovered,” she said.

Young grew up eight hours north in Calgary, Alberta, but her family often came to Bozeman to spend holidays with the family of Greg Young, MSU music department interim director. MSU has seemed like “a second home,” she said.

Leckie, 25, born in Billings, is graduating in mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace. After MSU he is going into the Marines, having attended Officer Candidates School in Virginia the past two summers.

“I wanted to serve my country,” Leckie said. “I believe what we have here is not free and somebody's got to pay for it. It's a wonderful nation.”

The honors program was a challenge, he said. It not only required extra class work, but also more writing and using more of the imaginative, rather than logical, part of his brain.

“Honors really makes you think about what you know and what you believe,” Leckie said. “It was a very cool experience.”

He took an honors class in mentoring gifted students in local public schools – kids so smart they are often bored in class. He enjoyed it so much, he took the class six semesters. He worked with fourth- to sixth-graders interested in math and science, and had fun making catapults and potato cannons with them.

Graduating feels great, Leckie said. “I've been here 5 ½ years. I'm ready to get out and get started.”

Fang, 23, who grew up in a city of 7 million people south of Beijing, came to Montana at age 16. He joked that his mother kicked him out of the house. Actually, he said, “Mom wanted me to pursue a better education, and knowing a different culture and English would be good for my future career.”

When Fang first arrived in Seeley Lake, he spoke almost no English. A bright, hard-working student, he learned the language and graduated from high school in Queens, New York City. He chose MSU because a high school teacher told him it has a good engineering program and he was offered a scholarship.

At MSU he enjoyed the Honors College's small classes and doing research at the Western Transportation Institute. He also enjoyed learning to fly fish with his roommates, camping in Glacier National Park and visiting Yellowstone National Park.

“My personal philosophy is, ‘Just be happy,'” he said.

Now Fang is planning to go to the University of Illinois to earn a master's degree in environmental engineering. Perhaps someday he'll work on cleaning up China's air pollution. He said he's excited to graduate “but also sad to leave Bozeman.”

Rolph, 23, was chosen to give the student address at the Honors College celebration Thursday night. In addition to earning degrees in civil engineering, French and Honors, she also served for one year as president of MSU's award-winning student chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

“It was cool to work on something with a lot of young people,” she said.

EWB sent student travelers to Kenya to work on installing clean water wells and latrines at poor village schools. Rolph stayed in Bozeman to serve as chief troubleshooter, helping to find answers when problems arose in Kenya.

Rolph also traveled to Morocco twice with her French professor and did a service-learning project. She taught a computer workshop in a village that had just connected to the Internet. It was a great opportunity to learn about another culture, she said.

She grew up in Seattle and said MSU was “definitely” a good choice. She loved the upper-level Honors seminars and being part of a small community within MSU.

“I'm really grateful MSU tries to be accessible and affordable,” Rolph said. After 5 ½ years, she's excited to graduate. “I'm very ready to do something different.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.