Each year, the Montana Educational Talent Search [METS] program and Montana GEAR UP [GU] support youth in being college ready whether they are the first in their family to
attend college, need financial assistance, or just require extra support. We want
to celebrate the graduates of both programs as they pursue various paths beyond high
school, as well as look back at their success, involvement, and acknowledge the barriers
Montana GEAR UP serves seventh through 12th graders at 17 Montana middle schools and their receiving high schools. The program also supports students through their freshman year in college, helping to facilitate a smooth transition to college life that will serve as the foundation for their long-term success.
The METS program serves students in grades six through 12 with a goal of helping them complete high school and succeed post-graduation, whatever route they take. METS provides both group and one-on-one mentor sessions with a pre-college advisor who gives guidance on middle and high school course selection, career counseling, financial aid resources, as well as college and scholarship information.
The stories that follow represent only a small portion of the hundreds of students that benefit from these programs. On behalf of the Montana University System’s College Access Team, we congratulate the class of 2021 on their momentous accomplishments.
- Maycie Anderson, Thompson Falls High School, GEAR UP
- Kylie Billin, Hardin High School- METS
- Jolia Buchanan, Thompson Falls High School, GEAR UP
- Trevyn Carter, St. Ignatius High School- GEAR UP and METS
- Kiahna Cochran, Harlem High School, GEAR UP
- Ethan Downey, Troy High School, GEAR UP
- Tayzha Hiwalker, Pryor High School, GEAR UP
- Aaron Kelly, CMR High School, METS
- Kirsten LaMere, Rocky Boy High School, GEAR UP
- Madison Mckiernan-Laverdure, Great Falls High School, METS
- Xada Littlewolf, Lodge Grass High School, GEARUP & METS
- Ruby Martin, Libby High School, GEAR UP
- Justin Morgan, Thompson Falls High School, GEAR UP
- Madison Nowakowski, Great Falls High School, METS
- Victor Perez-Carrillo, Polson High School, METS
- BreeAnna Polk, Browning High School, GEAR UP and METS
- Brynn Pule, St. Ignatius High School, GEAR UP and METS
- Tarel Rollins, Great Falls High School, GEAR UP and METS
- Brooklyn Suden, CMR High School, METS
- Sally Weber, Libby High School, GEAR UP
Thompson Falls High School, GEAR UP
During her high school career, Maycie Anderson served as manager for the football, wrestling, and volleyball teams. She was also a member of student council and even took on many babysitting roles outside of school. Her real passion, however, is psychology, which she plans on studying in the fall at Carroll College.
Anderson looks forward to moving to the Helena area to live near family. Once there, she wants to work at a daycare while she pursues her studies: “Ever since I could talk, I wanted to be a ‘baby doctor.’ I’ve always just loved kids and babies. I’m excited to start fresh somewhere new, to build my own life,” said Anderson.
Anderson’s passion for mental health grew from her own experiences with anxiety and depression. “There’s just so much to learn about psychology. Whenever I do schoolwork, I try to incorporate my passion for mental health.” As of now, Anderson’s future career plans include returning to the high school setting to teach Psychology.
Hardin High School- METS
On the surface, Kylie Billin has always come across as shy, but that hasn’t stopped her from breaking out of her shell on stage.
During her high school career, Billin participated in Business Professionals of America, cheerleading, swing choir, and theater. Since the age of six, she has performed in countless community theater roles, including Missoula Children’s theater, and at least six high school productions: Property Rites, Beauty and the Beast Jr, The Puppet Master, Pirates of the Penzance Jr, Nightmare, Mary Poppins Jr.
“I’m usually kind of shy, but with theater, I get to become someone else,” said Billin.
After graduation, Billin plans on attending Brigham Young University in Idaho to study Biology with an emphasis in Zoology in hopes of becoming a zookeeper.
“We had many pets growing up. My mom would always take us to the zoo and I would always get super excited to go see the animals that you don’t normally see roaming around Montana,” said Billin.
Going forward, Billin wants to continue her love of animals and performing as she continues her education at BYU.
Thompson Falls High School, GEAR UP
After graduation, Jolia Buchanan plans on attending Rocky Mountain College to study psychology with minors in prelaw and business.
“I was thinking about coming back to my community and teaching psychology. My grandfather was in the military and has told me a lot of stories of people coming back with trauma and PTSD, so maybe I’ll do something with therapy,” said Buchanan.
Much of her inspiration to pursue Psychology stems from her 200 plus hours volunteering with the Sanders County Coalition for Families, an organization that provides resources to domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse victims. Her commitment to the organization earned her the presidential volunteer service award bronze medal.
“Sanders County Coalition deals with a lot of people that struggle with mental health and addiction. I just want to help people and do my part,” said Buchanan.
Throughout her high school career, Buchanan participated in several sports including basketball, golf, and even made it to state for track and cross country as a Freshman. Outside of sports, she played the flute in band and participated as a member of student council and national honor society.
St. Ignatius High School- GEAR UP and METS
After graduation, Trevyn Carter plans on attending Montana State University to study science in hopes of becoming a surgeon.
“I’ve always wanted to go into the medical field, even before middle school. Since I love science, it’s made the decision easier. I’ve jumped around from nursing and specializations like that, but general surgery has always been something I wanted to go into,” said Carter.
Through Upward Bound, Carter participated in an internship work study program that allowed him to shadow different hospital roles from nursing to radiology.
“I would be like a sort of intern and I would be sent around the hospital to shadow and ask questions. Seeing it up close was what I based my decision on. It’s definitely different than looking in a textbook,” said Carter.
Outside of class, Carter stayed involved as a freshman leader, tennis player, and participated in a few service projects through Upward Bound, including one where he worked with a team to build a green house.
With a future at MSU and a plan for med school, Carter looks forward to his long anticipated career in medicine.
Harlem High School, GEAR UP
Ask Kiahna Cochran what it takes to succeed in the face of a challenge, and she’ll smile like only someone who knows the answer can. Hers is a story of overcoming adversity, homelessness, and finding a way no matter the winding path. After graduation, Cochran will study either business or psychology at Gonzaga University.
After finding herself homeless twice in one year, Cochran moved into an apartment with her sister in January of 2020 and has been living independently ever since. Through all her trials, Cochran is coming out of high school 5th in her class with a 3.84 GPA.
Among her many accomplishments, Cochran also participated in the MAPS media summer program at Harlem, where she worked on a team to create Looking Forward from Yesterday, a short documentary that pays tribute to the legacy of the Aaniiih and Nakoda Tribes. The film went on to win awards from the Northwestern Portland and Big Sky film festivals and was even nominated for a reginal Emmy.
As Cochran navigates the future, she hopes that her story can inspire others to overcome life’s challenges.
“I want to be an example for other students. A girl who came from a background of addiction and domestic violence, I can use my trauma and past experiences to become a stronger and better person.,” said Cochran.
Troy High School, GEAR UP
After graduation, Ethan Downey plans on attending Montana State University to study engineering.
“I think having a good foundation in science is important. I mean, science affects everything. We use technology all the time. I think it’s cool being able to understand how things work rather than just knowing how to use them,” said Downey.
During his high school career, Downey participated in football, basketball, and tennis. He also served as president of the travel club, where he helped coordinate fundraising for a trip to Costa Rica.
“I’m proud of my commitment to travel club. It’s a lot of work and sometimes it felt like a part time job,” said Downey.
While in Costa Rica, Downey found a love for traveling and experiencing other cultures.
“Living in a small town, I kind of know everyone, but being able to experience a vast amount of different people allows me to learn about different aspects of life. I like experiencing the differences in culture,” said Downey.
As he moves on to MSU, Downey looks forward to pursuing his passions in science and travel.
Pryor High School, GEAR UP
Culture, competition, and learning how to help others has always been a big part of Tayzha Hiwalker’s identity. That’s why after graduation, she plans to attend MSU-Billings in hopes of someday working in the medical field.
“I want a job that involves helping others. I thought that the medical field could be cool. I was planning on SKC [Salish Kootenai College], but I wanted to stay closer to home,” said Hiwalker.
Sports have always been a big part of Hiwalker’s life. During her high school career, she participated in volleyball, basketball, and cross country.
“Sports is just really big in my family. That is all we did. My sister and I would always play volleyball outside growing up. It keeps me busy, and in order to play, you have to keep up on your grades, so it gives me another reason to keep up on my work,” said Hiwalker.
Beyond the court, Hiwalker has expressed a passion for native youth involvement through the All Nations Club and the Office of Public Instructions youth advisory council. The council met twice a week to discuss topics like missing and murdered indigenous women and ways to help Native American youth.
As she moves on to MSU-Billings, Hiwalker looks forward to a future in serving others.
CMR High School, METS
The saying, “it takes a village to raise a child” is an understatement for Aaron Kelly. As he prepares to study mechanical engineering at Montana Technological University, Kelly is determined to give back to his community.
When Kelly moved to Montana from California in 2009, he found a community ready to help.
“When we came here, my family didn’t have a lot. The community helped shape who I am today. From my aunt providing us housing, to my teachers helping me with basic school necessities. Between all the community outreach, I’ve always wanted to pay back,” said Kelly.
One way Kelly has stayed involved in the community is through his volunteer work with the McClean Cameron Animal Adoption Center, an organization that provides for animals and adopts them into forever homes.
“Watching them [the animals] grow more comfortable with people and putting them into a good home that will love them is one of the best experiences of my life,” said Kelly.
With a big heart and community centered mind set, Kelly looks forward to using his various skill sets to open a business to ease financial restriction for those who want to learn automotive or woodworking.
Rocky Boy High School, GEAR UP
For Kirsten LaMere, nursing runs in the family. That’s why after high school, she plans to study at Montana State University to become a second generation registered nurse.
“My whole family has inspired me to go to college, especially my mom and auntie because they’re nurses. For a while, I did not know I wanted to be a nurse, I just wanted to help people,” said LaMere.
In addition to several clubs, LaMere has lettered all four years in basketball and volleyball and took up cross country her Senior year. Among her accomplishments, LaMere was named class Valedictorian.
“I’ve overcome a lot in 17 years to get to this point. I’m proud of that. They usually pick valedictorian after seventh semester, and I was ranked number 1 [in my class],” said LaMere.
Though nervous to live four and a half hours away from home, LaMere looks forward to the future and meeting new people as she starts her college career at MSU.
Great Falls High School, METS
After graduation, Madi Laverdure plans on attending Great Falls College MSU to study elementary education in hopes of becoming a teacher.
Laverdure’s love for children started three years ago when working at Hands, a before and after school childcare program for elementary school students.
“Working with the elementary kids, I just ended up growing a love for kids and helping them succeed. I’m looking forward to becoming a teacher. I want to be a role model for them and make them want to come to school,” said Laverdure.
Beyond her work with Hands, Laverdure served as Great Falls High school’s student body secretary, sang in the varsity choir and captained the cheer team during her senior year.
“I played sports my whole life. In eighth grade, my best friend encouraged me to try it [cheerleading]. We both made it, so I just ended up loving it and sticking with it. My senior year, we got our new coach, Ronnie and she opened up a bigger part of me that I didn’t even know existed,” said Laverdure.
Because of her great leadership, Laverdure was also selected to compete in the Summer 2021 East West Shrine games, where she and other athletes selected from high schools around Montana will compete and raise money for Shriner’s Hospital.
Lodge Grass High School, GEARUP & METS
To many, the future is daunting. But to Xada Littlewolf, it is full of growth and opportunity. After graduation, Littlewolf plans to attend Little Big Horn College to finish her Associate before joining the Military to become an officer in the Army before attending Montana State University for law.
“I chose to go to Little Big Horn College because it is my tribal college and that is where my mom started her college career and I also want to have some background for when I enroll in the military,” said Littlewolf.
During her high school career, Littlewolf participated in Volleyball and was the manager for the girls’ basketball team. Beyond her extra activities, Littlewolf particularly cherishes time with her family.
“I was raised in the Crow Agency area. I live with my mom and brother, and I have numerous nephews, nieces, aunties, and uncles who have helped raised me. I’m proud to be Crow and to have my family, because of our culture, and we value our family because it is the most important thing to care for,” said Littlewolf.
With her family’s support, Littlewolf looks forward to the future with excitement and goals of personal growth.
Libby High School, GEAR UP
Recently named class co-valedictorian, Ruby Martin will attend the University of Idaho to study computer engineering with a minor in Asian studies. She will participate in ROTC before heading into the Air Force post-graduation.
“I decided on the Military path, mostly because my dad thought it would be a good fit for my personality. We just thought this ROTC scholarship worked the best with what I hoped to do in a career,” said Martin.
Throughout high school, Martin kept busy participating in soccer, basketball, tennis, and band, where she played flute and piano. Among her activities, Martin landed an internship with the 19th Judicial court, where she works closely with Honorable Matthew Cuffe.
“I get to see a lot of cases. Sometimes he has me read a case and talk to him about it; what my thoughts are on it. Then he explains part of the law and what goes into decisions,” said Martin.
Martin is excited to continue her studies in college, as well as her future in the Air Force.
Thompson Falls High School, GEAR UP
Justin Morgan has always had an interest in math and science. After graduation, Morgan plans to study electrical engineering at Montana Technological University.
“I attended 'Tech Days' at Montana Tech and spoke to a lot of the department heads. I really connected with the Electrical Engineering department head and he told me electrical engineering was one of the more math intensive engineering disciplines and I’ve always really liked math,” said Morgan.
Throughout high school, Morgan had the chance to grow his love of math and science at Montana’s Science Olympiad, a state-wide competition that allows students to explore STEM careers through innovative projects and collaboration.
Beyond Morgan’s devotion to math and science throughout high school, he also participated in basketball, NHS, Student Council, and takes a particular interest in Track and Cross Country. After being seeded 27th, he even placed 13th at the 2019 State Cross Country meet, receiving an All-State honors. Morgan decided to continue his running career at Montana Tech.
Great Falls High School, METS
Busy is an understatement for Madison Nowakowski as she leaves high school with 54 college credits. Ambitions run high as this Great Falls graduate hopes to finish her Associate’s degree by July before going to either Grand Canyon University or Arizona State University to study criminal justice before heading into the Air Force and later, work as a police officer.
Nowakowski decided to go into law enforcement after participating in the 2019 Jr. Police Academy. On top of that, she took part in a mentorship program at the Great Falls Police Department through Strive for Success.
“I have always been a person who would rather help people than sit at a desk. I want to make a difference in the world, even if it’s just in my own community,” said Nowakowski.
On top of all her classes, Nowakowski earned the role of group commander in JROTC, where she served the community through fundraising and volunteering. After participating in JROTC, Nowakowski will participate in ROTC before heading into the Air Force.
After her military career, Nowakowski looks forward to returning to Great Falls as a police officer.
Polson High School, METS
After immigrating to the United States from Mexico at the age of 10, Victor Perez was met with the challenge of learning a new language and culture in a new home. Now, eight years later, he will be the first in his family to attend college.
Perez plans to attend the University of Montana to study sociology with an emphasis in criminology. He wants to join ROTC in hopes of enrolling in the Army and returning to his community to become a Police Officer.
“I’ve always been fascinated with law enforcement. I remember as a little kid playing cops and robbers in Mexico. Growing up in a small village in Mexico, my transportation was a donkey. My dad was always here [in Montana] working. I’m going to make my parents proud, and I want to break that barrier. I want to be the first of many in my family to go to college,” said Perez.
Perez’s interest in law enforcement solidified when he attended the 2019 Jr. Police Leadership Academy in Helena, where he was named Sargent.
Throughout his time in high school, Perez has been involved in many activities from boxing and student government president, to spending over 150 hours volunteering with various organizations. He has recently developed an interest in wildlife photography, sharing images with his Instagram followers.
Browning High School, GEAR UP and METS
BreeAnna Polk’s love for music began in the sixth grade. Her drive is to share that passion with the Browning community. After graduation, Polk will study music at the University of Montana in hopes of returning to Browning as a band teacher.
So far, Polk has learned over 10 instruments and participated in several elite ensembles. She played tuba with the honors performance series at Carnegie Hall, and traveled to Europe with Northern Ambassadors of Music, a choir. She also competed at state festival, receiving a superior rating, and ranking her as the top Tuba player in Montana.
Outside of music, Polk spent several hours throughout high school volunteering for Bear Medicine and Browning High School food pantries. She even organized a food drive at her school’s basketball game that collected over 200 food items as a project for the Governor and First Lady Leadership Council. Beyond her drive to reduce hunger in the community, Polk has helped run her local cheer camp for several years.
As she looks forward to the future, Polk hopes to continue her hard work at UM in the fall and eventually return to Browning to continue sharing her passion for music with her community.
St. Ignatius High School, GEAR UP and METS
After graduation, Brynn Pule plans on attending the University of Arizona to study business and interior design.
“I realize that I’ve always had an interest in it. I would always rearrange my bedroom and I was like ‘I can do that for a job.’ For business, I’ve always liked how things worked and what goes into planning and the numbers,” said Pule.
During her high school career, Pule participated in several activities including volleyball, softball, basketball, community service group, freshman mentorship, class president, and serving as part of the Montana Governor and First Lady Youth Leadership Council.
As part of the Youth Leadership Council, Pule took a special interest in service projects pertaining to childhood hunger and organized a food drive at a St. Ignatius High School rival basketball game. In the end, the drive raised nearly 300lbs of food that was distributed between two different food banks.
Pule was recently awarded a scholarship from the Hagan Scholarship Foundation, and she hopes to graduate debt free.
Great Falls High School, GEAR UP and METS
Tarel Rollins has been carrying around a basketball for as long as he could remember. Now, because of his hard work, Rollins has an offer to play college basketball for the University of Providence, where he plans to study business in hopes of working in sports management.
“I found a love for sports when I was young and it’s just been growing and growing ever since,” said Rollins.
Beyond the court, Rollins also participated in National Honor Society and has done volunteer work with the Great Falls Youth Resource Center, Montana Coach’s Clinic, and even had the opportunity to coach middle school basketball.
“I really enjoyed it. It was like seeing the game from a completely different perspective. You couldn’t just go out and do what you thought needed to be done. You had to build that trust within these eighth graders,” said Rollins.
As he looks back at his success in both athletics and academics, Rollins has his mom to thank.
“My mom was a single mom and has worked super hard. I know she is proud of me. I never knew how hard she was working to get me in a good spot. She has worked so hard for everything I have. She’s my hero,” said Rollins.
CMR High School, METS
Brooklyn Suden has always seen the world from a creative perspective.
Now, entering college as a first-generation student, she plans on attending the University of Montana Western to study business and fine arts in hopes of someday owning a photography business.
“It’s a different world in the lens. It’s a crazy perspective nobody else can see what angles you’re looking at. I’ve known since third grade that I wanted to do photography, so I’ve been practicing ever since,” said Suden.
Beyond running her small-scale photography business of taking Senior photos, Suden participated in several school activities including environmental club and cross country, where she ran at state as a sophomore. Outside of school, a lot of her free time was spent volunteering for environmental club and the Great Falls Alliance for Youth, an organization that seeks to improve various risk factors for youth in the community.
“I got to volunteer for about three hours when they were first opening to clean up the place and get it ready for opening day. Later on, I got their contact information and went back. I’ve been doing a few things with them like putting together a kids library,” said Suden.
Because of her involvement in the community as well as Montana Educational Talent Search leadership, Suden also won the 2021 MCAN Student Achiever award. As she looks towards the future, Suden hopes to continue her involvement in the community at Montana Western.
Libby High School, GEAR UP
Sally Weber has a wide variety of accomplishments from being named co-valedictorian to being elected class president. But as she moves closer to attending Montana State University in the fall, Weber particularly looks forward to exploring her interest in science and biochemical engineering to someday attain a career in the medical field.
By participating in MedStart, a program that allows students to explore medical careers, Weber discovered that though she’s always had an interest in the medical field, her talents lay in problem solving, something a field like biochemical engineering could fulfill.
“I really like the field of engineering for the problem solving. Growing up I always wanted to be a doctor because I thought helping people in that way would be cool. But I feel through engineering and design, I would be able to solve more problems that are worldwide,” said Weber.
Weber continued her love of science attending Montana’s Science Olympiad, a state-wide competition that allows students to explore STEM careers through innovative projects and collaborations.
Outside of Science Olympiad and student government, Weber also participated in band, tennis, soccer, and played violin on the side.
Weber has big goals and looks forward to continuing her many interests at MSU.