Zachary Rogala found Montana State University had a big impact on his life, and now, as the new student member of the state Board of Regents, he wants to make sure other Montanans get the same chance.

“I feel the education at Montana State, at the University of Montana, is pretty phenomenal,” Rogala, 26, said Monday, chatting at The Daily coffee shop in Bozeman. “I want to be in a position to ensure future Montanans continue to receive the high quality education we have.”

Appointed last month by Gov. Steve Bullock, Rogala said he felt “very excited” on the first day of his one-year term, if a bit anxious about the steep learning curve.

As student regent, he’ll have one of seven votes on the Board of Regents, which oversees the Montana University System, its 47,000 students, 7,000 employees and $1.4 billion budget. He replaces Joe Thiel, an MSU student who served two years and was so respected he became the first student regent to chair a regents’ committee.

Rogala’s selection seems to bridge the Bozeman-Missoula cross-state rivalry. He graduated from MSU in 2010 with honors in philosophy, and this fall starts at the University of Montana School of Law.

Put on the spot about which team he’ll cheer for in the ‘Cat-Griz football game, he said, “definitely rooting for the Griz,” the team he grew up supporting.

His first meeting as student regent will be in a week, when elected student leaders on the Montana Associated Students will attend their first-ever, two-day summer planning session with the commissioner of higher education’s staff.

“Historically students have been treated as second-class citizens,” largely because by the time student leaders get up to speed, they move on, Rogala said. However, he said, in the last five to 10 years, competent and very motivated student leaders have emerged to advocate for students.

One major issue the regents will work on this year is “performance-based funding,” distributing some state money to campuses based on their graduation rates. Rogala said he’s cautiously optimistic about it, but wants to avoid potential pitfalls.

Student leaders have been pushing the regents to expand their anti-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation. Rogala said he supports the principal of equality before the law, but hasn’t yet seen any proposed wording.

Rogala grew up south of Missoula in Darby, a logging town where his dad was a cabinet builder and his mother Ravalli County fairgrounds director. He graduated in a high school class of 36 and headed to MSU, aiming to study engineering.

Instead, he discovered a passion for philosophy, environmental sustainability and the outdoors, including river rafting and downhill skiing. At MSU he was elected a student senator and started a pilot project to compost cafeteria food scraps.

Since graduating, he has worked as an aide to Sen. Max Baucus, as staff trainer for the Yellowstone Club ski school and taught skiing in Portillo, Chile. He just finished working on an online documentary, a 34-part series called the Montana Ethic Project. It includes interviews with everyone from entrepreneur Greg Gianforte to philosophy professor Gordon Brittan, former state Sen. Dorothy Eck and former Gov. Judy Martz.

“Democracy is an experiment, and in Montana we have a unique intimacy with our political institutions” which allows citizens to “really shape and direct our lives,” Rogala said. “It’s an opportunity that should not be taken lightly and should be embraced diligently.”

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

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