The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
Volume 18• Number 2 • Summer 2001

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A Class of their Own

Minnesota's top stundents call UMD home.

Are UMD scholarships designed to give hundreds of teenagers a chance at the college experience? Or are they vehicles for recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest to the Duluth campus?

All of the above.

UMD has an extraordinary number of scholarships for top students. First, UMD provides guaranteed scholarships to all students in the top 25% of the high school graduating class. That translates into about 46% of UMD first year students. Second, students in the top 10% of the high school graduating class can apply for one of the 100 competitive Merit Scholarships. And third, UMD sponsors the innovative Best of Class Scholarship for top high school students.

Best of Class, brainchild of UMD’s senior administration, is part of an ongoing effort to remain competitive for the most academically talented students in Minnesota. All state residents who graduate first or second in their high school class are eligible. The scholarship pays one half of resident tuition for the entire four years. Currently, there are 173 students receiving the Best of Class Scholarship.

One of the earliest recipients was Joshua Rose, a senior from Albert Lea, Minnesota. His status is typical of many Best of Class scholars: he is working on a double major and early graduation.

Joshua’s sharp career focus and sense of direction are also typical. “I have known I wanted to be in theater ever since I was in fifth grade. And by the time I was a junior in high school, I had made the decision to chase my dream.”

Initially, he considered a career in lighting design after working with the Minnesota Festival Theater, which brought professional theater to Albert Lea. The summer after graduation he assisted on a production that changed his life.

The play was Billy Bishop Goes To War. “I would come and watch the show or parts of it every night, even when I was working across the street in the scene shop. It was phenomenal. The stage manager was the best one I’d ever worked with. I learned so much from her and that is when I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Joshua applied to UMD on the recommendation of theater friends who had come through the Duluth program. He will leave with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater with a concentration in stage management and theater technology, a major crafted through the “composite emphasis.” The composite allows BFA candidates to design a major tailored to specific career aspirations. This approach requires a lot of diligence, Joshua says, to map out the major and the general education requirements.

College has been demanding, he says, because theater majors lead lives of professionals as well as students. They take a full load of classes while they’re staging productions. “Because there are so few of us on the technical side,” he says, “we work all five shows. You have to get the schoolwork done and at the same time you have a responsibility to the show. It becomes consuming. I’m looking forward to dedicating myself just to theater.”

His careful sense of planning extends beyond graduation. “It’s great to be able to say I accomplished my goal of getting a degree, but it’s time for me get out and do some internships, do some freelance work and start building my resume in the professional world.” After graduating this summer, he hopes to obtain an internship with the Guthrie, then get his union card by working with Mixed Blood Theater on one of their educational tours next January.

Around the corner from the theater, Russian-born Best of Class scholar Anya Gybina devotes her time and well-planned attention to her studies in chemistry and biochemistry.

To simply classify Anya as a senior is to ignore the continuum of education that began while she was a student at East High School in Duluth. She first attended UMD as a “post-secondary” student, fulfilling many of her general education requirements. As a freshman, she was already assisting with graduate level research in a biochemistry lab.

Anya and her colleagues are working on a project involving nitric oxide. And she loves it. “It’s a very small molecule,” she explains with enthusiasm. “Only two atoms. It’s a free radical and a cytotoxin that aids the anti-bacterial properties of the immune system. It’s also a neurotransmitter that helps with cardiovascular dilation. When you take heart drugs, like nitroglycerin, that’s where you get nitric oxide. We’re fairly certain we’ve discovered a nitric oxide storage molecule within the mitochondria of rat liver cells.” When the work on this project is completed, she will have a paper published in the scientific journal, Analytical Biochemistry. Her name also appears on a paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

She laughs when she recalls earlier career plans. “In high school, I planned on majoring in biochemistry because I thought it would help me with medical school.” But she found she enjoyed the straight science of biochemistry, especially the practical learning environment of the lab.

Even though Anya took UMD classes while in high school, she enjoyed the campus experience much more as a bona fide college student. She freely admits that college presents a great academic and social environment. For one thing, it gives her the chance to share her passion for science with other people her age. “Scientists are more analytical and logical in their thinking than most people. I feel connected intellectually with students interested in the same things I am.” Her schedule leaves little time for outside interests. “You need to be honest with yourself and decide where your niche is.”

Anya wonders whether her niche started to take shape as she read fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. “His stories were populated with rats and dying children,” she remembers. “When I was a little kid, I was pretty sure I was going to catch the plague, so I started thinking about cures and antidotes very early in life.”
She plans to remain at UMD after graduation, even though there is no comprehensive Ph.D. program in biochemistry. She will apply to the Twin Cities campus for graduate school, while taking as many classes as possible in Duluth. “I really want to stay here. I got incredibly lucky with the lab I’m working in. My advisor is the most amazing biochemist I’ve ever met. She knows what she’s talking about and she gets the research done.”

Like Joshua, Anya received several other scholarships and will graduate debt free.

Steph Newland is another Best of Class Scholar with a keen eye on the bottom line. The sophomore from ElkRiver is a student in the School of Business and Economics and her choice of colleges was an easy one.

She was accepted at the Carlson School of Management, St. Thomas University and the Rose Hullman Institute of Technology. “But,” she says, “they didn’t offer me enough money. My goal is to graduate with as little debt as possible.” Like other Best of Class Scholars, Steph is determined to make the most of her time at UMD by working on a double major and graduating on schedule. She is currently majoring in organizational management and marketing with a minor in economics — all this after considering engineering.

“I was attracted to the math aspect of engineering, but I really enjoy working with people so I started thinking about business as a way to use my talents and interest in math. Since I couldn’t decide between organizational management and marketing, I decided to major in both.” Her plan is to go into public relations.

Balancing an outgoing nature with a strong desire to get good grades was a challenge at first, Steph says. Like other Best of Class scholars, she cites “the work load” as one of the biggest surprises of college life. In high school, these students work hard to graduate from high school as valedictorians or salutatorians, while maintaining an active extra-curricular life. As UMD students, they are determined to preserve a stellar GPA. All of Steph’s choices are directed toward that goal.

Her living quarters are an example. She has a private room in the Campus Park apartments. “This is great. It was impossible to study in the dorm. I spend all day on campus and when I come home, I want to be able to shut my door and study.” And there is very little fun money. When she had saved enough from a summer job to start thinking about buying a car, Steph invested instead in a brand new Dell computer. She shows it off with pride, the way other 20 year olds might treat a low-mileage Jeep Cherokee.

Steph attributes her ability with numbers to her dad, a UMD grad who was her eighth grade algebra teacher in Elk River. “He graded me harder, but he was an excellent teacher.” He also owns and operates a small pottery business, a nice blend of artistic talents and math skills. Steph takes after her dad in the artistic area; she likes to paint.

She credits both her mom and her dad with inspiring their children with a strong sense of direction. “My parents encouraged us to develop the skills we’re good at. That made a huge difference. Before I got here, I knew exactly what my strong points were. And when it’s time for me to decide what I want to do for the rest of my life, I can look at a job and see whether it fits my goals.” One of her goals is to attend graduate school — paid for by a corporation that offers postgraduate tuition as a benefit to employees.

Though she is fiercely dedicated to her studies, Steph makes time for working out several times a week and intramural sports (soccer and volleyball) and a part-time job as a UMD tour guide. She enjoys this opportunity to be an ambassador for the school. “I can definitely say if it weren’t for this scholarship, I never would have come here, but UMD was a great choice for me. It has really broadened my outlook and gives me a chance to work with a wide variety of people.”

Mike Kokotovich
is another Best of Class scholar who is sold on Duluth. “UMD was kind of a last minute choice,” says the Hibbing sophomore, “I was looking at West Point, St. Thomas, North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota.” His older sister Katy, a UMD grad, suggested that he apply. Shortly thereafter, his mom received information that Mike qualified for a scholarship that would cover half of his tuition for four years. Though he received other scholarships, Best of Class closed the deal. “Katy really liked it here,” Mike says. “And I'm glad she encouraged me. I love it here.”

Mike is double majoring in accounting and MIS – management information systems. His dad and sister are accountants so he was fairly familiar with that profession. He wasn’t as sure about management information systems, but he had read enough to know that it was a current trend in management. MIS is the study of systems that connect a company with suppliers and clients, as well as different departments within the organization. After two years, Mike is now very familiar with the concept and enjoys it tremendously. “I like the analytical nature of it,” he says. “We study a system to figure out what is happening and how it can be improved.”

Katy’s advice followed Mike to Duluth. From his sister’s experience, he knew that the workload would be heavy, there would be other demands for his time and at the same time his freedom would increase. And he knew what he had to do to keep his grades high. Like Steph, Mike has learned to create the most effective environment for studying. “It’s much too difficult to study in the dorm at the end of the day.” Next year, he and his roommates will be in an off-campus apartment.

In high school, Mike competed at the varsity level in football, hockey, golf and track, so he is definitely designing a system that will allow him time to participate in intramural sports at UMD. He is also enthusiastic about the classes that fulfilled the general education requirements. A jazz class (also Katy’s recommendation) introduced him to a new way of listening to music and an ethics class introduced him to a new way of thinking.
Mike enjoys all of it. He looked around the student lounge in the Kirby Student Center, gestured toward a window that faces Lake Superior and said, “It’s great here! I’d love to come back here and live in Duluth eventually.”

Before then, his goal is to work for one of the top five accounting firms that take the best students from colleges across the country. And next year he will gladly add one more extra-curricular activity to his schedule — mentoring his younger sister Kelly, who will attend UMD with a Best of Class Scholarship.

Venu Nayar, a top student from Eagan, Minnesota, like other Best of Class scholars, has many talents. She plays the violin and keeps her instrument in her dorm room for those few moments she can take just for herself. “But I don’t get to play it that often,” she says.

Last year, she was also involved in the Literary Guild and was one of the editors of The Roaring Muse, the literary magazine published by the English Department.

This past spring, Venu participated in a UMD Asian Celebration and enchanted the audience with a traditional Indian dance.

Venu has a flair for biology. As a first year student, she prepared a poster presentation of a research project for the 16th Annual Sigma Xi Science Exhibition. The week-long exhibition involved 50 students. Venu’s project was entitled “Effects of Triterpenoid and Betulin on Pathoegenic candida species.” It was so well prepared, both in content and in its presentation, that it rivaled projects done by seniors and the exhibition officials gave her a special prize of merit.

“I spend a lot of time in the Biology labs,” she said. “I am proud of the fact that they trust me.” It is not surprising that she has received one of the Ed & Alma Turcotte Scholarships for biology students.

Travis Amiot
, a top student from Warroad, said that the Best of Class scholarship has increased the caliber of students at UMD. Classes and study groups are affected. Even dorm life can change. “It is a super way to bring the state’s top students to UMD. When I came to this university with so many exceptional students, I felt like I was joining an elite group.” Travis is a sophomore marketing and communication student with a minor in professional writing.

Like so many Best of Class scholars, his days are packed. He ran varsity cross country, and he is interested in running indoor and outdoor track next year. In the winter, he does fit in time for snowboarding!

Travis participates in the “Reading with Champions” program through the athletics department. That brought him into a sixth and seventh grade art class every other week for a semester and he got to know some of the students. “I got to talk to the same kids every time I came to the school and I felt like I made a difference in the class,” Travis says. “College life means you are with the same age group all day, every day, so the art class got me back into the real world.”

His face is well known on campus. He was elected by the student body to the Student Association, a representative system of student government consisting of six officers. Last year, Travis held the position of Student Association vice president for academic affairs where he helped UMD cope with policy decisions in its ever-changing institutional environment. Travis worked on a five-year campus planning and priorities committee. “Students actually have a lot of say about the planning process,” he says. “Student government was a good fit for me because I think I am at my best when I am working with people.”

You can tell by his activities that Travis is good with the public. His campus job gives him lots of opportunities. He is the admissions department tour guide training coordinator. He also is a founding member of a new group called SIFE, Students in Free Enterprise. “You would be surprised to find out how many students in the School of Business and Economics who would like to become an entrepreneur someday,” he says. “Some of them have great ideas and they have already started small business projects.”

Stephanie Orstad, a sophomore in the College of Education and Human Service Professions, fell in love with northern Minnesota and psychology at the same time. During one of her family’s many trips to the North Shore, Stephanie stopped at a bookstore and found an old psychology textbook. Though she was still in high school, Stephanie knew she wanted to be a psychologist and that UMD was the perfect place for her to begin her studies.
However, Stephanie was also passionate about the Spanish language. Her mother encouraged her to take advantage of an opportunity to study in Seville, Spain. The studious sophomore from Sandstone had never traveled to a city larger than Minneapolis. A year later, she has experienced the demands of maneuvering her way around London, Stockholm and Madrid. “Ever since I began taking Spanish in high school,” she says simply, “it has been my goal to work on my Spanish by studying abroad.”

Like the college experience, study abroad provides an education beyond irregular verbs and in-depth discussions on the life of Cervantes. When asked what lesson has been the most valuable, Stephanie quietly but quickly responds, “Patience!” Communicating with natives in their own culture is a far cry from conversing with Senora Ebnet’s Espanol class at East Central High School.

“I’m used to the dialect now,” Stephanie says, “but my best understanding has been in the classroom. Colloquial Spanish is like learning a new language and it varies from region to region. It’s often a barrier to meeting people. Even though I understand what they’re saying, it’s hard to enter the conversation. But I’m slowly learning.”

While in Seville, Stephanie is studying only Spanish and she misses her psychology classes. The trade-off, she says, is that living and studying in a foreign country gives her a chance to gain a new perspective on human behavior. “Because it’s a different culture, the mentality and the outlook on life are so different from what I’m used to. I hope it will help me deal with people whose lives are very different from mine.”

Stephanie is another Best of Class scholar who plans to graduate early with a double major. She earned a few credits through the Advanced Placement program in high school. “And,” she says, “I had a strong focus before I started. So I knew exactly what courses I had to take and what order to take them in.”

With a concentration in counseling, Stephanie plans to attend grad school and ultimately have her own practice. She is grateful for her college experience. “Best of Class is wonderful. I’m paying very little for my college education and I’ll graduate without debt.”

Stephanie admits there is one foreign territory left to conquer before graduation. “I still need to take a math class.”

by Molly Stein

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