Tarel Rollins plans to study physical therapy or exercise science at a Montana college. Brooklyn Suden is looking at going to the University of Montana Western in Dillon to major in business and minor in fine arts. Madi Nowakowski is preparing to join the Montana Air National Guard and eventually pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice.
These three high school seniors are “striving for success” thanks to a United Way program that has provided them with extra college coaching and mentorship to help them figure out a smart path as they head into their adult lives.
“If I didn’t have this program, I wouldn’t be thinking about college at all,” said Suden. “It’s opened a lot of doors to a lot of different opportunities.”
Suden is one of nine Great Falls students who have participated in Strive 4 Success since their sophomore year. A pilot program that’s part of United Way’s Graduation Matters initiative, Strive targeted students who will be the first in their family to go to college and possibly had other barriers to graduating high school and attaining higher education.
“The underlying story is kids really need a network of people to help them perpetuate their goals,” said United Way Community Impact Coordinator Lacey Hallett. “The program helped them meet people and make connections that they otherwise may not have had the opportunity to make.”
Strive 4 Success is a mentorship program. Each of the students was carefully matched with a local professional who could help them explore their interests.
Rollins, who’s preparing for his final basketball season with the Mighty Bison and hoping to play college ball, was paired with former UP assistant basketball coach J.C. Isakson. Along with recruiting Rollins for an AAU travel team, Isakson shared with him about his job, giving him a glimpse of what coaches do when they are not on the court.
“I was really interested in what he was doing,” said Rollins. “It was definitely sweet to have someone showing you what they do outside of going to practice.”
Isakson said he brought Rollins to UP basketball games and invited him to the locker room during half time, allowing him to get a closer look at being a college player.
“Tarel is a great kid who does things the right way,” said Isakson. “He has an unbelievable demeanor and approach to life. It’s been awesome to work with him in multiple capacities.”
Rollins wasn’t sure college would be an option because it’s so expensive. “I used to think about college as this big scary thing with student load debt, several hours of homework a day,” he said. “But they have shown us many ways to get scholarships and that kind of thing. They’ve made it seem a little easier to grasp and not as scary.”
Through numerous college fairs and tours and career exploration with the Strive program, Rollins has narrowed down his career interests to physical therapy or maybe exercise science.
Suden also felt the cost would stand in her way of going to college. “I was just a free soul and wanted to travel after high school,” the CMR senior said. “I didn’t think I had the brains or the opportunity to go, mentally or financially.” But now she’s applying at Western while staying busy with her side photography business, something she has been able to explore more through the Strive program.
Suden was paired with former Tribune reporters Kristen Inbody and Enya Spicer, who took her along on story assignments and let her try her hand at photojournalism. When Inbody moved to a communications job with Benefis Health System, Suden was able to check out graphic design work in the hospital’s marketing department.
“The Strive program got me through a lot of doors and introduced me to a lot of things and different businesses,” she said. “They really like to focus on you personally; they focused on our different talents and interests.”
Nowakowski’s interest in law enforcement dates back to when she watched NCIS when she was younger.
“It just kept going from there,” the Great Falls High senior said. “Then in middle school I really connected with the SRO (school resource officer), and I thought this is for sure what I am going to do.”
Nowakowski’s mentor, Great Falls Police Officer Cara Guderian, has taken her on ride-alongs, she has participated in the GFPD’s Citizens Academy and much more. “I’ve seen the 9-1-1 dispatch center; I’ve seen the jail; I could give you a tour of the Great Falls Police Department myself,” Nowakowski joked.
Her plan after high school includes enlisting in the Montana Air National Guard, earning a master’s degree in criminal justice and then going to work at the GFPD. Nowakowski feels the Strive program helped her look at all her big goals and figure out a reasonable path to accomplish them.
“I would stress about life and college – how do you know what college to go to, and how do you know what you actually want to do?” she said. “The program helped solidify what I want in a college and how to apply for financial aid. And I learned it was okay to apply to a half dozen colleges, which was really helpful. I had a long list, and some of my colleges didn’t even offer my degree.”
Nowakowski said over the past couple of years with Strive, she and the other participants have done volunteer work, attended college fairs, received help with resumes and practiced interviews. “They were there to help with whatever we needed,” she said. “They even offered us a scholarship to help with school applications or anything we need to help us along our career paths.”
Rollins was able to buy a new laptop with his $500 award, which the participants also could use toward dual enrollment classes, college applications or other college- or career-related expenses.
The Strive 4 Success program and scholarship awards are funded by the iGraduate Montana initiative that’s a partnership among the Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, and the Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation.
The initiative was created to build upon the work of Graduation Matters Montana. Strive 4 Success ties in with United Way’s Graduation Matters goals, specifically the goal to increase the number of students who graduate on time and are ready for college or careers.
Strive program coordinator Tranell Blazio said the program’s major strength was helping the students connect with numerous community members so they have people they can contact to further help them along.
“In general, students need that extra guidance,” she added. “This program opens students’ eyes to endless possibilities.”