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Heather Martin cried when she found out. Josh Hedrick skipped. Sadie Starcevich was so shocked she was speechless.

Their reactions were different, but the extremity of their responses was similar and the cause was the same: last month, Martin, Hedrick and Starcevich were the first three students to be awarded scholarships to attend Montana Tech at no cost, as part of the university’s new Butte Initiative program.  

The program gives full, four-year rides, plus room and board and money for books, to three students who are from Butte, who would be the first in their family to graduate from college and who have “a real financial need,” according to Montana Tech Foundation Executive Director Michael Barth.

Martin, Hedrick and Starcevich certainly meet those criteria.

Martin says she was removed from her family’s home when she was 16 by the state’s division of Child and Family Services.

Hedrick’s parents have been on disability for much of his life, his only sibling was “severely disabled” in a car crash and he was tasked with “taking care of (his) whole family” while still in high school, he says.

Starcevich's parents didn’t attend college, and she was going to have to patch together scholarships and jobs to get through school.

From those origins, they have worked tirelessly to reach success, eyeing college as a necessary next step to get there, even when it wasn’t clear how they would pay for it.

While attending Butte public schools, Hedrick and Martin say they found invaluable support from TRIO, a federal program that assists students from disadvantaged backgrounds through a variety of programs, including Upward Bound, which Martin took part in, and Talent Search, which Hedrick participated in.

According to Martin, the support programs were crucial to her success.

“College was always something I wanted to do, because I wanted to better myself from my situation, and being an Upward Bound student, they always made sure that I knew that college was an option, no matter what,” Martin says. “So having TRIO as a support really made all the difference, because without them, I don’t think I’d be going to college, really. I don’t even know if I would’ve made it through high school.”

But make it through she did, excelling in school while also working various jobs and pursuing a wide range of extracurricular activities, from band to Civil Air Patrol to the cadet program at the Racetrack Volunteer Fire Department, which she became a full-fledged member of when she turned 18. She also found time to become a certified EMT.

With turmoil in her home life, Martin says participation in such activities allowed her to “create kind of my own family.”

As for Hedrick, he took a different route, focusing intently on school and on pitching in around the house, rather than taking on extracurricular responsibilities.  And while his parents didn’t attend college, he says they pushed him to go: “Education was super important to my parents, because they never really got a good education.”

Starcevich says she liked and valued school — “It’s always been the most important thing” — and that she worked diligently to become Butte High’s valedictorian, while also captaining the school’s golf team and doing “a lot” of volunteer service.

Though they neared the end of high school eminently qualified to continue their schooling, they say they had trouble imagining how it would work out, even after they were accepted to Montana Tech.

“I was just going to deal with it (paying for school) as it came,” Martin says. “I wasn’t going to let the money stop me.”

But while she says she “worked (her) butt off applying for scholarships,” one that she didn’t apply for was the Butte Initiative. That’s because funding for the program didn’t exist until near the end of their senior year, when Montana Resources, through the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, donated $597,000 to Montana Tech to immediately fund the program.

Mike McGivern, Montana Resources' vice president of human resources, says Tech's Be the First Initiative "struck a chord" with him and others from MR, many of whom are Tech graduates who understand the importance of getting kids from the community "up the hill" to Butte's “world-class university." 

According to Barth, that donation jump-started an initiative that Montana Tech had been building for several years, since launching the university’s Be the First campaign to boost enrollment among Butte’s large population of potential first-generation college students. To pay for scholarships, the foundation embarked on a campaign to create $1 million endowment that would allow the university to offer full rides to several such students a year, far into the future.

Barth says he thought “it would take years” before scholarships would be funded, but when the Foundation approached Montana Resources, they “wanted us to be able to get this started right away.”

Hence, the nearly $600,000 gift.

And hence, Martin’s, Hedrick’s and Starcevich’s surprise when, one day in June, after they’d already graduated from Butte High, they were summoned, separately, to a conference room on the Montana Tech campus and were told they’d been given scholarships worth up to $16,600 a year, for four years.

For these first beneficiaries of the Butte Initiative, the scholarships were about more the money. 

“It meant a lot, because with everything that there’s already distress about, there’s that one big thing, that weight that’s been lifted off your shoulders,” Martin says. “So it (the scholarship) really means the world to me.”

It’s a sentiment Hedrick echoes: “This scholarship, it meant a lot, because it meant that I actually — I did it. I made it to college. And I’ve had to live pretty iron-skinned throughout my life and throw off happiness and sadness and anger and all that stuff, so I can keep focused and keep doing what I’m doing.”

Starcevich says the scholarship took a weight off her and those around her: “It just takes a lot of stress off my shoulders and (off) my family.”

According to Theresa Rader, director of TRIO student support services at Montana Tech, this was exactly the kind of response the Butte Initiative selection committee was trying to generate: “We really tried to find some folks who would not have been able to go to school at this level, without assistance from a scholarship like this.”

And Barth says Martin, Hedrick and Starcevich represent the “the start of something” that will continue to build.  

“We’re going to work very hard to ensure we’re able to continue this long into the future. And we know there are more students who could benefit,” Barth says.

Eventually, he’d like to see between 6 and 9 students given full scholarships as part of the initiative. But to do so, the Montana Tech Foundation will have to continue adding to the money Montana Resources gave and the $300,000 it has raised toward the Butte Initiative endowment.

When reached on a recent afternoon, Barth was in Houston doing exactly that, talking to a donor who wanted to support the program.

“The conversations are continuing as we speak,” Barth says.

And he hopes the program will spark another kind of conversation, in Butte, among the many other kids who could be the first in the families to go to college.

“We want to make sure … that kids in East Middle School and the various elementary schools around Butte understand that there’s a real opportunity in their hometown at Montana Tech if they work hard through high school,” Barth says. “There’s money available and there’s scholarships available to help them chase their dreams.”

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