Merit Scholars, Bozeman High

From left, Marie Riek, Siena Popiel, Nina Bennett, Carter Berg and Cody Rosolowasy pose for a photo outside of Bozeman High on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. These five seniors are National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. They will now have the opportunity to compete for advancement into the finalist found of the program.

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A pandemic hasn’t slowed down the plans of these students.

Five Bozeman High School seniors have been named National Merit Scholarship semifinalists this year, based on their scores on last year’s Preliminary SAT college-entrance tests.

The teens are among 16,000 semifinalists announced in September, and considered the top 1% of the 1.5 million juniors who took the test nationwide last year. The semifinalists will compete for 7,600 National Merit Scholarships worth over $30 million offered next spring.

Bozeman High School is one out of two schools in the state to have five semifinalists, said Dan Mills, principal of the school.

“It’s a very humble group, and they take themselves, their intelligence and diligence, very seriously,” Mills said.

He said despite their common achievement, the group of students all have “bright and diverse interests.”

Mills, a former Advanced Placement English teacher, joked the one class all five of the students had in common was AP English, a testament to the importance of the class.

He said while the semifinalist designation was based on the students’ PSAT scores, it was a “hallmark of 13 years in the Bozeman School District.”

Interviewed this week, the students talked about their high school experiences, their plans for the future and the eventful months of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I wasn’t thinking about it, and it wasn’t something I was trying to achieve,” said senior Siena Popiel on being named a semifinalist. “It was a nice little surprise.”

“It’s testing your cumulative knowledge so you can’t study for it 20 hours beforehand,” said Carter Berg, who credited the district’s emphasis on teaching students to understand the why.

“It’s a blessing we do have with living in Bozeman, dedicated teachers who do a lot,” said Nina Bennett.

“We’re extremely lucky to have grown up here,” said Cody Rosolowsky.

“We’re all in the college application process now,” said Maria Riek of what the last few months have been like.

The students all expressed a wide range of interest in activities outside of their regular classwork, including speech and debate, math tutoring, rock climbing, and volunteering with a lab at Montana State University.

Maria Rick, who is on the leadership team of the school’s HOSA-Future Health Professionals group, said she plans to major in biology and then attend medical school. She said she would like to focus on medical research.

Berg said he is flip-flopping between a couple options but is leaning toward majoring in environmental science and possibly going into environmental law.

Bennett, who spent last year living in Mexico, said she plans to major in psychology and become a therapist.

Rosolowsky, who competes with the Bozeman Climbing Team, said he would like to major in mechanical engineering with the long-term goal of working with a motorsports team. He said, “going fast would be a dream.”

Popiel, who is president of the school’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance group, said she plans to go to law school, with a focus on human rights law.

With the blended model of instruction this year – two days of in-person and three days remote – the students said it gave them a flexibility and freedom to have more ownership over their schedules.

“There is more autonomy with this schedule,” Riek said.

Berg said he had to learn how to space out the work load, instead of trying to do all of the remote work in one day. He said it was a great skill to learn for college.

“We’ve definitely benefited form the blended online schedule,” said Rosolowsky.

They all agreed the transition to partial remote learning was probably easiest for their age-group but presented more challenges for elementary students.

The seniors said they were looking forward to graduating this year, and being able to celebrate that accomplishment with friends and family.

Mills said he loved this time of year and the announcement of the semifinalists. He said he was excited to think about the group of students and what was to come for them.

“It’s easy, especially this year, to be cynical of the world,” he said. “But this group provides some hope for the future.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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