Bozeman High School will graduate approximately 447 seniors Sunday afternoon in ceremonies at Montana State University’s field house, and many students will be reaching a goal they always knew they’d achieve.

Others will feel lucky to have actually made it.

No matter where they started, most students have had to overcome some personal challenges to reach this moment of success and celebration, as interviews with four graduating seniors showed this week.

Daniel Gao, 18, plans after graduation to attend his dream school, Stanford University, and is interested in someday attending medical school and doing cancer research.

Raylee Yellow Owl, 17, wants to earn a degree at Montana State University so she can return to the Blackfeet Reservation and help her people.

Lillian Krach, 18, will attend the University of Montana on a full-ride presidential scholarship and hopes to do wildlife research.

And Ruby Lenard, 17, is thrilled to have been accepted into a new kind of college, Minerva Schools, that will give her the chance to live and learn in seven major cities around the world, from Berlin to Buenos Aires.

“There was never a dull moment with the class of 2019," said Lauren Covington, coordinator of Bozeman High’s College and Career Center. "They are bright, witty, compassionate, creative and will impact their communities with the foundation of what BHS represents: acceptance, integrity, and respect.”

Passion for learning

All this school year, Gao said, he’s been excited about graduating and suffering from a bad case of senioritis. But now that it’s finally here, he realizes he’ll miss teachers and friends who will be moving on.

“It makes the moment bittersweet,” he said.

Gao — one of 31 Bozeman High students graduating as valedictorians with perfect four-year 4.0 grade point averages — is an exceptional student. The son of an engineering professor, he was able to take MSU science classes during high school in chemistry, calculus and honors physics.

“I really like learning,” he said.

Gao also got to participate in the science lab of MSU’s research vice president, Renee Reijo Pera. He said he’s excited about the possibilities of using stem cells to fight cancer, a disease that affected a member of his family.

Though he has focused on science, last summer he spent three weeks at Stanford’s Summer Humanities Institute and discovered the excitement of lively discussions of issues like race in American society with students from all over the world.

“It really blew me away,” he said.

He got into USC, Cornell and Yale, but when he received an acceptance from Stanford, that was his dream come true. On top of that, Stanford covers full tuition for students with family incomes under $125,000.

Asked about his personal challenges, Gao recalled second grade, when he was moved from Bozeman’s Irving School, which has a lot of international students, to Emily Dickinson School, where he was one of the only Asian students.

“Everybody at Emily Dickinson was white,” he said. “I just felt out of place.”

It was difficult, but he soon realized the boys liked to play football and other sports, so he became interested in sports to fit in.

Bozeman High gave him a good education, Gao said. In addition to taking extra-hard science classes, he played violin with the orchestra and clarinet with the band, and participated in speech and debate, the Project X2 feminist club and Human Rights Club.

“The thing I really like (about Bozeman High) is if you have a strong passion for learning something, they’ll really help you,” Gao said.

Heartbreak and hope

Graduating from high school and going to college were never sure bets for Raylee Yellow Owl.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it to this point,” she said. “But I did.”

She grew up in Missoula until her freshman year of high school, when she moved back to the Blackfeet Reservation.

“I started to go downhill” as a student, she said. “I was trying to fit in with my peers.”

The reservation was a depressed environment, Yellow Owl said, and a lot of her friends were getting involved in addictions. Her grandparents, she said, were the ones who really raised her.

“I don’t have both my parents in my life,” she said. They served time after convictions resulting from alcohol or opioid addictions.

“They chose their addictions over their children,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

Yellow Owl said she was in “a really dark place” last year when she applied to MSU’s summer Montana Apprenticeship Program. MAP brings students from reservation high schools to spend several weeks on the MSU campus working in scientific research labs. It helped that her older sister lives in Bozeman.

“I really fell in love with college and campus life last summer,” Yellow Owl said. Before that, “I wasn’t going to go to college at all.”

She enrolled at Bozeman High, but had low expectations.

“I thought I would be a wallflower,” she said. “The teachers really pushed me to go out, find myself.”

She joined Bozeman High’s small Native American Club and became its treasurer.

Her sister persuaded her to apply to two-year Gallatin College, and she was accepted. Then she applied to MSU and again was accepted. Now she wants to major in psychology and minor in Native American studies.

“I want to get a degree and go back to the reservation to help my people,” Yellow Owl said.

For her senior project at Bozeman High, she reported on the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous people, like her cousin Matthew, whose murder at age 22 got little attention from law enforcement. Another cousin recently hung himself.

“There’s so much carnage and heartbreak on the reservation,” she said.

She feels anxious about graduating, as if she can’t quite believe it. It hits her hard when people say, “Your parents must be so proud.”

“I’ve had to grow up,” Yellow Owl said. “I knew I didn’t want to turn out like them.”

Covington gave her a hug.

Covington has helped scores of seniors apply to colleges and apprenticeships, seek financial aid, plan gap years and enlist in the military.

It becomes personal, Covington said, when you help students with their college essays, share financial stories and share hopes and dreams for the future.

“She’s succeeding,” Covington said proudly of Yellow Owl.

Self worth

Lillian Krach faced a difficult challenge in her senior year – deciding where to attend college.

It came down to a choice between Vassar College, an “amazing” and prestigious but expensive school in New York, or accepting UM’s top scholarship, the presidential leadership scholarship —which offers her free tuition for four years and a $7,500 stipend.

It was a challenge, Krach said, “knowing my self worth, and not feeling I had to prove my self worth” by picking a college because of its prestigious name, instead of the college that would be the best fit for her.

“In the end, in the long run, it made so much sense to not go into debt, and to go into a program in Montana in wildlife biology,” Krach said. Choosing UM means she’ll get to study the subject she’s passionate about and leave college with “no loans.”

She plans to double-major in wildlife biology and ecosystem science and restoration. She said she wants to do field research and eventually earn a master’s degree or Ph.D.

“I think I’ve been blessed, my family is very supportive,” Krach said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge she has faced in life came in middle school, when her parents divorced. It forced her to “grow up, become more independent and rely on myself,” she said. “It’s a skill I cherish. … Both my parents have helped me immensely.”

Krach said she realized that what matters about a college education isn’t how fancy a name it has.

“Your education is just what you make it,” she said.

Travel the world

When Ruby Lenard looked at her phone in pre-calculus class and read that she’d been accepted by Minerva Schools, she was shocked.

“Oh, my God!” Lenard exclaimed. Then she had to explain the college to her classmates, most of whom had never heard of it.

Minerva Schools, which is accredited through the Keck Graduate Institute, part of the Claremont Colleges, was founded in 2012 in San Francisco as a 21st century kind of college. It is named for the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Lenard said she’ll spend the first year in San Francisco, and after that will travel with classmates around the world, spending the next six semesters in six cities — Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London and Taipei.

It has an acceptance rate of around 1.9%, making it one of the hardest schools in the country to get into, she said. Covington had tried to warn her it was a huge long shot.

Just applying to Minerva was like a treasure hunt. In the mail Lenard received a weird black postcard with black letters that read, “Are you ready to be challenged?”

She solved the logic problem on the back, which sent her to a website and more problems to solve. Eventually she reached an application for Minerva, a college she’d never heard of.

Instead of a traditional college essay, Lenard discovered Minerva required answers to timed online challenges. She had two minutes to answer questions like how to handle a crisis and “What is your biggest regret?”

“I just liked it – ‘This is fun,’” Lenard said.

It probably helped her to think fast that she loves to argue and had competed on Bozeman High’s Hawkers speech and debate team. She and her partner last year won the state championship in policy debate.

Minerva seeks to teach students to think creatively and critically and communicate and interact effectively, Lenard said. And it’s attracting students from all over the world. She’s already making friends online with classmates from South America and Asia.

Tuition is only $13,000 a year; room and board cost $10,000. Minerva contends it’s less expensive than many colleges because students aren’t paying for sports facilities or professors doing research.

Lenard said she wants to double major in religion and psychology and might want to become a professor.

“The world is large,” she said, “and I’m going to see a lot of it.”

She said she got a good education at Bozeman High.

“Definitely,” Lenard said. “What sets it apart is the incredible staff. They go above and beyond to help students.”

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

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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