Standing near the 20-yard line at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Tuesday morning, University of Montana President Royce Engstrom faced 900 high school freshmen and challenged them to become the next Sandra Day O’Connor or Elon Musk.
One became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the other invented PayPal and Tesla Motors. They also finished high school, Engstrom noted, his voice playing over the stadium’s sound system.
“Sandra Day O’Connor and Elon Musk were both high school and college graduates,” Engstrom said. “Graduation will put you on a path of adventure and a life of contribution.”
Held in a brisk October wind, the third annual Graduation Matters Freshmen Rally drew a lineup of speakers ranging from Denise Juneau, the superintendent of the state Office of Public Instruction, to students, a professor and leaders of Missoula County Public Schools.
In a tone reminiscent of a college graduation, the speakers urged students from Hellgate, Sentinel, Big Sky and Seeley-Swan high schools to put their noses to the grindstone and earn their diploma.
“Our state needs scientists, economists, teachers, attorneys, nurses, welders, construction workers and business people,” Juneau told them. “You are the future of our state and you are now old enough to make choices for your life.”
Among those choices, Juneau said, students can play the passive victim of circumstance or the active hero in their lives.
Yet whichever path they choose, Juneau added, time will fly by and not all mistakes are easily undone. She asked students to live up to their expectations and make the best of their youth.
“You cannot wait for these things to happen,” Juneau said. “You have to make it happen.”
Juneau noted that roughly 1,700 Montana high school students failed to graduate with a diploma last year. Nationally, 1.3 million students dropped out of high school.
Alex Apostle, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools, said the graduation rate in Missoula is at 90.3 percent. While it leads all other Class AA school districts in the state, he said, he wants to push the numbers to 100 percent.
Apostle urged them to go beyond and dream big.
“Graduating from high school is the real deal,” Apostle said. “Whatever you do or don’t do in high school will follow you. Work hard and your options after high school will be many.”
Engstrom encouraged the Class of 2017 to consider UM when selecting a college. The school has ramped up its recruiting efforts, though after Tuesday’s event, Engstrom said the rally was intended to recruit students to succeed.
“We’re recruiting them to graduate high school – we’re recruiting them to go on to college,” he said. “The most important thing is for these young people to see themselves as the leaders and champions of tomorrow.”
When asked before the rally, many students said they were undecided about where they would attend college. They still have four years to decide, though for many, the wheels are already turning.
They also knew the reason they were there on the football field for Thursday’s presentation.
“Graduating high school is a stepping stone to a better life almost,” said Sentinel student Jackson Petty. “If you graduate high school, you’re in position to go to college and get a career, a good life.”
Petty said he hadn’t decided yet on a college, though he knows he wants to become a physicist.
“In my math class, we look at different colleges for different majors,” he said. “I’d like to see what the student-to-faculty ratio is, what their majors are, what they’re known to be good at.”