Shelby Rogala is graduating from Montana State University this Saturday, when 935 students will be eligible to walk in the first fall commencement MSU has held in 67 years.

“Whew!” Rogala said when asked how she feels. “It’s kind of bittersweet.”

The 22-year-old said leaving the MSU students and professors who have had a tremendous impact on her life is “kind of sad.” But the history and philosophy major is ready to apply what she’s learned in the larger world.

Commencement in December is great, Rogala said, letting her “share the pomp and circumstances with family and friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I wouldn’t come back for spring. That would have been disappointing for my parents.”

Provost Martha Potvin said more and more students today finish their academic work in December, and they often don’t or can’t return for the traditional May graduation ceremony.

“It’s a way to honor those students, to mark a major milestone in their lives and have their parents here to celebrate with them,” Potvin said. “This helps keep the excitement up and helps us recognize the event close to the time it happens.”

This will be only the third time in the campus’s 119-year history that commencement is held in the fall. Bonnie Ashley, MSU registrar, said the record books show that Montana State College held fall commencement twice, in 1944 and 1945, probably to accommodate students affected by World War II.

MSU’s enrollment has grown so dramatically in recent years that in the past two Mays, two commencement ceremonies were held – in the morning and afternoon – each attended by around 700 students, Ashley said. She expects around 600 students will show Saturday to receive their bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” Ashley said. Classes of students have raised 300 white poinsettias in the Plant Growth Center to decorate the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

“This is the real deal, the real commencement,” she said. “It’s as important as our May ceremony.”

Some colleges and departments will hold their own ceremonies. The University Honors Program, for example, will hold a ceremony Friday at the Museum of the Rockies to celebrate the graduation of 14 honors students, including Rogala.

The honors students are “inspirational,” said Ilse-Mari Lee, honors director. “They’re all going into the world to make a difference.”

Rogala did two undergraduate research projects at MSU, traveling to India to investigate the pitfalls and opportunities in “voluntouring” or combining travel with short-term volunteering. She also looked into ways to improve MSU’s grant partnerships with tribal colleges.

The daughter of a carpenter and fairgrounds manager, Rogala came from Darby, population 720, and is part of the first generation in her family to graduate from college.

“I feel pretty confident from MSU about where I can go in the future,” she said.

Kiera McNelis, 22, a chemical engineering major from Belgrade, said she feels “excited but a little sad” about graduating. Chosen to speak to the honors graduates, McNelis said she’d talk about what she learned as president of MSU’s student chapter of Engineers Without Borders. She traveled twice to Kenya to help install clean water wells at poor village schools.

“Always take a step back, try to make a difference,” McNelis said, “instead of focusing on your own achievement.”

Megan Podolinsky, 23, a Helena student who majored in environmental biology and Hispanic studies, said she had an “awesome” experience studying abroad in Spain for a year and doing research with MSU scientists. She also volunteered with Eagle Mount, helping disabled people to ski cross-country and downhill and to skate, and was a swim coach for Special Olympics.

“I’m very happy to be graduating,” Podolinsky said. “My parents … want to watch me walk” and she likes “having the excitement of graduating right when you’re done, instead of waiting a semester.”

One downside of graduating in December is all the snow on the ground, but Ashley said she didn’t think so when asked if students would wear heavy Sorel Pac boots under their black robes.

“We’ve had snow in May,” she said and laughed.

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