National Merit Scholarship semifinalists

Bozeman High has 11 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists this year. They are, from left, Grace Rembert, Maggie Callow, Will Hodgson, Megan Mahoney, Jackie Olexa, Andy Tallman, Owen Mitchell, Irene Liang and Zoe Johnson. Not pictured are Isaac Hall and Yufu Yoshimura.

No parents would have to pay bribes to get these students accepted into fancy colleges. These kids are the real deal.

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

Of the 1.5 million teens who took the test nationwide, they’re in the top 1%. As semifinalists they’ll have the chance to compete for 7,600 National Merit Scholarships.

Bozeman High had more semifinalists this year than any other school or community in Montana.

“This is a community that values education — in the right way, as a holistic process,” Principal Dan Mills said. The 11 students are involved in a wide variety of activities, which, he said, “contributes to their overall intelligence.”

“Being a National Merit semifinalist is more than showing up and doing well on one test,” Mills said. “It’s an emblem of doing the right things the right way over a long period of time.”

Interviewed during homecoming week on Thursday, when Bozeman High students show up wearing red and black, the students talked about high school and their hopes for the future.

“None of what we’ve done,” said senior Owen Mitchell, “could be done without the wonderful people at school, our friends, our parents. Being at Bozeman High has been an amazing opportunity. I want to say, ‘Thanks.’”

“The AP classes are amazing,” said Zoe Johnson.

“And the arts programs,” added Jackie Olexa.

“I think we’re very privileged,” said Will Hodgson.

In addition to classwork, the students have been active in music, speech and debate, National Honor Society and sports — from soccer and cross country to ballet and competitive horseback riding.

Asked if there’s a lot of pressure from adults to excel in school and get into top colleges, Mitchell said the pressure usually comes from expectations students put on themselves.

We’ve grown up with pressure, Olexa said. “We’ve used it to grow and become better.”

Andy Tallman, co-editor of the Hawk Tawk student newspaper, said there’s “a lot of pressure — to get into college, get a job, pay off student debt — and we’ll all be dead in 50 years … (With the climate warming) it’s kind of stressful.”

Mitchell and Olexa were part of the Solar Schools Club that got a bill introduced in the 2019 Legislature to raise money for Montana schools to install solar panels. The bill failed, but legislators were impressed by their effort and urged them to try again.

Grace Rembert made news as an eighth-grader when she came in fourth in the 2016 National Geographic Bee — the only girl among the nation’s top 10 contenders. Rembert now plays violin with the school’s Kamerata orchestra and she hopes to someday play violin professionally.

“Because it’s challenging and really hard,” Rembert said. “You can’t do it perfectly. There’s always room to grow.”

Maggie Callow is into soccer, swimming and skiing, and said she loves working with Special Olympics and doing things outdoors. In college, Callow said, she may major in political science, “and do things with human rights or social equality.”

Megan Mahoney, who dances ballet, has been involved with Project X2, the gender equity club, and starting a math club. She said her future would probably involve something to do with math.

Mitchell said he has really enjoyed the high school’s science, technology and advanced math classes, but more important to him is political activism. “Trying to change the world to be a better place is what I’m really passionate about,” he said.

Tallman said Hawk Tawk has been most meaningful, and she wants to become a journalist. “It’s been great to get the truth out,” Tallman said, “making a difference in the world.”

Johnson said she’s passionate about literature and writing. She also won two gold medals at the state Health Occupations Students of America competition, and hopes to become a medical researcher. “My grandmother has MS,” Johnson said. “I’d like to find a cure for that.”

Irene Liang said speech and debate has been important to her. “I’m not talkative,” Liang said. “It helped me break out of my shell.” She’s one of 19 Bozeman students who qualified to compete at the national level in Dallas this summer.

In her future, Liang said she wants to study public health, after her family faced medical challenges and found it difficult to get treatment.

Yufu Yoshimura wasn’t able to attend the interview but told Lauren Covington, the school’s College and Career Center coordinator, that he plans to attend Montana State University. He is passionate about music and plays in the marching band and sings in both concert and jazz choirs, she said.

Olexa said she’s been involved in speech and debate, orchestra, Solar Schools, and competitive dressage and show jumping. She wants to study bioinformatics and Spanish and do more political activism.

Isaac Hall said performing arts have been most important to him, including high school musicals like “Legally Blonde” and Verge community theater. He’d like to study classical opera singing.

Hodgson said his life is dominated by the outdoors — skiing, climbing and mountaineering. In college, he said he may study natural or environmental science, “to transform my passion for nature and outdoors into a career.” He’s considering taking a gap year next year before starting college.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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