Hopa scholars

Three 17-year-old students talked Friday at the C'mon Inn about the Hopa Mountain Scholars of Promise program. From left are McKenna Dudley, of Colstrip High School, Montana Burns of Chief Dull Knife College and Brynn Miller of Bozeman High School.

Brynne Miller had a rough time growing up.

Her mom died when she was 13, probably from drugs that damaged her heart.

Miller had taken care of her siblings while her parents smoked meth. Then for about six years, she was placed in foster care and the siblings were split up.

“The experience was traumatizing,” Miller said. “I got to the point I didn’t care anymore.”

But today Miller is a 17-year-old senior at Bozeman High School, taking biomedical classes to pursue her dreams of going to college and becoming a heart surgeon — with support from her foster mom and from Hopa Mountain’s Scholars of Promise program.

The Bozeman nonprofit Hopa Mountain has taken Miller and other promising Montana teens to interviews at Ivy League colleges and helped with college application fees, filling out applications, writing college essays, prepping for college-entrance exams and providing mentors and role models who give encouragement and advice.

“That’s one reason this program is so important,” Miller said.

She was one of about 20 Hopa Mountain scholars who gathered in Bozeman last weekend to tour Montana State University, polish their college essays and support each other in working toward their goals.

“We feel so fortunate to be able to work with these young people,” said Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer, Hopa Mountain executive director. She co-founded the Bozeman nonprofit 15 years ago to invest in rural and tribal young people who could be leaders and improve their communities’ education, economies and environmental health.

Some 400 high school and college students have gone through the Scholars of Promise program in the past 10 years, Sachatello-Sawyer said. And 85% stay in school or graduate, a high success rate.

The Scholars of Promise program was started by Marissa Sprang, who worked with recent college graduates to find out what support they wished they’d had. The program first focused on helping American Indian students and has added foster kids, homeless students and those interested in health careers.

McKenna Dudley, 17, a senior at Colstrip High, said the first time Sachatello-Sawyer called her, “I ended up bawling, in tears. Bonnie told me my dreams were realistic. I could totally do what I want to do.”

Dudley, in Hopa’s health scholars program, said she hopes to go to Harvard, become a trauma surgeon and work in emergency rooms. She has wanted to be a doctor since she was 3. It’s not easy when you come from a coal town where the economy is deteriorating.

“Being in a community of scholars is really helpful,” Dudley said. “It boosts you, lifts you forward.”

Montana Burns, 17, is a sophomore at Chief Dull Knife College on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. He’s in Hopa Mountain’s indigenous scholars program and wants to become a teacher or professor.

Burns has had a harrowing life in Lame Deer. He said his mom was shot when he was 10, his dad went to prison. He tried to raise his four little sisters on his own and with his great-grandmother.

Drugs like meth and heroin were all around when he grew up, and he dropped out of high school. He was often bullied and often high in class.

“I thought I was stupid,” Burns recalled.

But thanks to the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, he was able to get clean and healthy. At 16 earned his HiSET high school diploma equivalent and became probably the youngest student ever to enroll at Chief Dull Knife. He is proud of his 3.7 grade point average. Now with help from Hopa Mountain, he’s applying to four-year colleges.

“Hopa really gave me hope,” Burns said. “I think Bonnie sees potential in every one of us.”

“She finds the good in you that you can’t see,” Dudley agreed.

Two mentors working with Hopa scholars at the C’mon Inn on Friday were Lynn Paul, a retired MSU professor, and Avery Old Coyote. He got a $5,000 fellowship from Hopa that helped him graduate from the University of Montana in 2016. Now at 31, Old Coyote is pursuing a Ph.D. in conservation biology in New York.

Paul said she enjoys helping students figure out what they’d like to major in in college to reach their goals.

“These students are incredible,” Paul said. They’re smart, but they also want to stay close to their families, she said. “It’s a nice blend of smarts and heart.”

Sachatello-Sawyer said the program depends on donations from individuals and groups like the O.P. and W.E. Edwards Foundation, Gianforte Family Foundation, Kendeda Fund and others.

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

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.