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HomeNewsMontana NewsUM Student Earns World’s Top Scholarship

UM Student Earns World’s Top Scholarship

MISSOULA – A University of Montana student who wove connections between the Russian language, business, renewable energy, data and entrepreneurship recently was awarded the oldest and most renowned fellowship in the world.

Kolter Stevenson, of Amsterdam, Montana, and an alumnus of Manhattan High School, is the first UM student in 30 years to receive the Rhodes Scholarship for study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

“It’s an honor to represent the State of Montana,” Stevenson said. “I share this award with my entire team who supported me in this journey. I’m still taking in the news.”

He is one of 32 American college students who were named 2024 Rhodes Scholars. Stevenson is the only student from Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska to be selected for two-year postbaccalaureate study at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions.

“Kolter embodies the talent and promise of Montana and the impact of a UM education at its best,” UM President Seth Bodnar said. “We’re here to ignite in students a desire to solve complex challenges and to provide a broad-base education and specific skills to ultimately make the world a better place. We are beyond proud to celebrate Kolter as UM’s newest Rhodes Scholar and as one of Montana’s – and our nation’s – greatest treasures. The entire state should join UM in celebrating this extraordinary achievement.”

Enrolled in four UM majors and carrying a 4.0 GPA in each one, Stevenson, a UM senior, was celebrated in letters of recommendation from UM faculty for his humble leadership, high intellect, varied interests, and insatiable curiosity related to renewable energy, globalization, languages, culture and data.

He also speaks four languages, including Russian, Norwegian, Spanish and English.

“It’s a gift and a blessing when you’re able to talk to someone in their own language,” Stevenson said. “The cultural learning is just much deeper, and when you can switch to their language, there’s tenfold the understanding.”

Stevenson said he found intellectual rigor and opportunity at UM in the majors of management information systems, finance and international business, with a certificate in big data analytics, each housed in UM’s College of Business.

Stevenson also studies Russian in UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences and is enrolled at UM as a Presidential Leadership Scholar in UM’s Davidson Honors College.

Of particular interest to Stevenson is UM’s cornerstone strength in World Languages and Cultures, where he found a family of sorts in UM’s Russian program. He was tutored and mentored by Ona Renner-Fahey, professor of Russian, and Clint Walker, associate professor of Russian.

“Without hyperbole, I can say that in many respects Kolter is the most impressive student I have ever had in over 25 years of teaching,” said Renner-Fahey. “”He is intelligent and driven but, more than that, he is also an unusually kind and humble person who possesses a seemingly endless amount of energy and genuine desire to make the world a better place.”

Stevenson found Russian by way of Norwegian, when he independently sought to dive deeper into his family’s roots by studying in Bergen, Norway, for his junior year of high school.  He was the first student from Manhattan High School to ever participate in a foreign exchange. It was there he encountered a particularly gifted Russian language instructor.

“I remember my brain really hurt that fall, when I was reading and learning Russian but all through Norwegian,” he said. “But once I got it, it was like a math equation that finally fell into place.”

In 2022, Stevenson was awarded a Critical Language Scholarship with the U.S. Department of State to spend a summer Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to enhance his Russian and research energy production across Central Asia.

It was in Kyrgyzstan that Stevenson discovered a deep interest in renewable energy and sustainable technologies for Central Asian economies. He plans to continue studying the intersection of diplomacy, cultural sovereignty and energy in Russian-speaking regions while at Oxford.

After graduating from Manhattan High School, Stevenson was the only student in his class to enroll in UM, where he was selected as a Presidential Leadership Scholar. He said he felt a natural connection with UM’s Davidson Honors College faculty and staff, including Tim Nichols, dean of the DHC; Bethany Applegate, DHC director of Student Engagement; and Kylla Benes, director of UM’s Office of External Scholarships.

“He has a rare combination of academic, interpersonal and technical skills that will enable him to reach his goals,” Nichols said. “An investment in Mr. Stevenson is an investment in a driven, innovative, culturally competent, selfless leader who will help the U.S. collaborate with other nations.”

Nichols and Stevenson also praised the work of Kylla Benes, UM’s director of external scholarships and fellowships, who guided Stevenson through the complex Rhodes application and interview process.

While immersed in Russian at UM, Stevenson wished to combine language expertise with other majors like management information systems and finance so that he could hone applicable skills in any field, such as data analysis, resource modeling and coding.

He was particularly inspired by classes taught by Jason Triche, associate professor management information systems, and leveraged Triche’s mentorship to develop a sentiment analysis using natural language processing on interviews with Russian and Ukrainian refugees in Montana, with hopes to discover their sentiments about using nonprofit humanitarian organizations.

“The outcomes of his independent study could help the city, state and area nonprofits create a sustainable and safe community for Ukrainian people settling in Montana,” Triche said.

Inspired by an old radiator in his dorm room in Knowles Hall (before the building’s recent renovations) – working with his friend and roommate – Stevenson parlayed skills in analytical technology to develop Smart Dorm, a technology that can analyze energy waste and increase energy efficiency and comfort for tenants.

The business’s technology is currently undergoing patent approval and has a been named a national finalist for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Grid Enhancing Technology category.

While earning four majors and enjoying evenings at Spanish and Russian-speaking events, Stevenson has also made time to enjoy life as a student at UM.

He has taught alpine ski lessons as a Professional Ski Instructor of America at the Yellowstone Club, in addition to volunteering as a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the East Missoula Rural Fire District and Frenchtown Rural Fire District.

“I am only sitting here as a Rhodes because of the incredible faculty, mentors and community families that I have,” Stevenson said. “I’m convinced there is not another university in the country where I could have had these opportunities and this level of support.”

Each year, thousands of Rhodes Scholarship applications are submitted by colleges and universities across the world. Applicants who demonstrate academic excellence, the ability to lead and care for vulnerable members of society are selected as finalists. They participate in a two-day interview process that determines the winners.

UM has produced 29 Rhodes scholars in its history. The last Rhodes scholars at UM were Charlotte Morrison in 1993 and Scott Bear Don’t Walk in 1992.

UM’s former Rhodes finalists were Beatrix Frissell in 2022; Arwen Baxter and Teigan Avery in 2021; alumnus Ryan Garnsey in 2020; alumna Mara Menahan in 2014 and alumnus Derek Crittenden in 2015. UM President Seth Bodnar and his wife, Dr. Chelsea Bodnar, are also former Rhodes Scholars.

Stevenson thanked UM faculty and staff for their support and encouragement including:

  • Clint Walker, associate professor of Russian, College of Humanities and Sciences.
  • Jason Triche, associate professor Management Information Systems, College of Business.
  • Kylla Benes, Davidson Honors College director UM’s Office of External Scholarships.
  • Michael Harrington, professor of Management Information Systems, College of Business.
  • Ona Renner-Fahey, professor of Russian, College of Humanities and Sciences.
  • Sara Truglio, program manager, Blackstone LaunchPad.
  • Tim Nichols, dean of the Davidson Honors College.
  • Tyler Munoz, chief, East Missoula Rural Fire District.
  • Katie White, Yellowstone Club.

By: UM News Service

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