MISSOULA – A University of Montana student who wove connections between the Russian language, business, renewable energy, data and entrepreneurship was recently awarded the world’s oldest and most recognized scholarship.
Kolter Stevenson, of Amsterdam, Montana, and Manhattan High School alumnus, is the first UM student in 30 years to receive a Rhodes Scholarship to 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 along the way. I still follow the news.”
He is one of 32 American students named as 2024 Rhodes Scholars. Stevenson is the only student from Washington, Montana, Idaho and Alaska to be selected for a two-year graduate program at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world.
“Kolter embodies the talent and promise of Montana and the impact of a UM education at its best,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “We are here to instill in students the desire to solve complex challenges and provide a broad foundational education and specific skills to ultimately make the world a better place. We are infinitely proud to celebrate Kolter as UM’s newest Rhodes Scholar and as one of Montana’s—and our nation’s—greatest treasures. The entire country should join UM in celebrating this remarkable achievement.”
Enrolled in four UM majors and carrying a 4.0 grade point average in each, Stevenson has been lauded by UM faculty letters of recommendation for his humble leadership, high intellect, diverse interests and insatiable curiosity about renewable energy, globalization, languages, cultures and data.
He also speaks four languages, including Russian, Norwegian, Spanish and English.
“It’s a gift and a blessing to be able to speak to someone in their language,” Stevenson said. “The cultural learning is just so much deeper, and when you can switch to their language, the understanding is tenfold.”
Stevenson said he found intellectual rigor and opportunity at UM in the fields of management information systems, finance and international business, with a certificate in big data analytics housed in the UM College of Business.
Stevenson is also studying Russian in UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences and is enrolled at UM as a Presidential Scholar in Leadership in UM’s Davidson Honors College.
Of particular interest to Stevenson is UM’s core strength in world languages and cultures, where he found a kind of family in UM’s Russian program. He was taught and mentored by Ona Renner-Fahey, professor of Russian, and Clint Walker, associate professor of Russian.
“It is no exaggeration to say that Kolter is, in many ways, the most impressive student I have ever had in over 25 years of teaching,” said Renner-Fahey. “He’s intelligent and driven, but he’s also an unusually kind and humble person who has a seemingly endless amount of energy and a genuine desire to make the world a better place.”
Stevenson found Russian through Norwegian when he independently sought to delve into his family’s roots by studying in Bergen, Norway during his junior year of high school. He was the first Manhattan high school student to participate in a foreign exchange. There he encountered a particularly talented teacher of the Russian language.
“I remember my brain really hurt that fall when I was reading and learning Russian, but all through Norwegian,” he said. “But when I got it, it was like a math equation that finally fell into place.”
In 2022, Stevenson received a US State Department Critical Languages Fellowship to spend the summer in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to improve his Russian and research energy production in Central Asia.
In Kyrgyzstan, Stevenson discovered a strong interest in renewable energy and sustainable technologies for Central Asian economies. While studying at Oxford, she plans to continue studying the intersection of diplomacy, cultural sovereignty and energy in Russian-speaking regions.
After graduating from Manhattan High School, Stevenson was the only student in his class to enroll at UM, where he was selected as a Presidential Leadership Scholar. He said he felt a natural connection with the Davidson Honors College faculty and staff, including Tim Nichols, DHC dean; 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 achieve his goals,” Nichols said. “An investment in Mr. Stevenson is an investment in a driven, innovative, culturally competent, selfless leader who will help the United States engage with other countries.”
Nichols and Stevenson also praised the work of Kylla Benes, UM’s director of external grants and scholarships, who guided Stevenson through the complex Rhodes application and interview process.
While majoring in Russian at UM, Stevenson wanted to combine language skills with other majors, such as management information systems and finance, to 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 of management information systems, and took advantage of Triche’s mentorship to develop sentiment analysis using natural language processing in interviews with Russian and Ukrainian refugees in Montana, hoping to uncover their feelings about the use of non-profit humanitarian organizations.
“The results of his independent study could help city, state and area nonprofits create a sustainable and safe community for Ukrainians settling in Montana,” Triche said.
Inspired by an old radiator in his dorm room in Knowles Hall (prior to the building’s recent renovation)—in collaboration with a friend and roommate—Stevenson used analytical technology skills to develop the Smart Dorm, a technology that can analyze energy use and increase energy efficiency and convenience for tenants.
The company’s technology is currently patent pending and has been named a national finalist in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Grid Improvement Technology category.
While earning four majors and enjoying evenings at Spanish- and Russian-speaking events, Stevenson also took time to enjoy life as a student at UM.
He has taught alpine skiing courses as a professional Ski Instructor of America at the Yellowstone Club, and has volunteered as a firefighter and EMS technician with the East Missoula Rural Fire District and the Frenchtown Rural Fire District.
“I’m only sitting here as a Rhodes because of the amazing faculty, mentors and families in the community that I have,” Stevenson said. “I’m sure there is no other university in the country where I can have these opportunities and this level of support.”
Colleges and universities around the world submit thousands of Rhodes Scholarship applications each year. Candidates 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.
Past UM Rhodes finalists have been Beatrix Frissell in 2022; Arwen Baxter and Teigan Avery in 2021; alumni Ryan Garnsey in 2020; alumna Mara Menahan in 2014 and alumni 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 in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
- Jason Triche, Associate Professor of Management Information Systems, College of Business.
- Kylla Benes, Director of the Office of External Scholarships, Davidson Honors College.
- Michael Harrington, Professor of Management Information Systems, College of Business.
- Ona Renner-Fahey, professor of Russian in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
- Sara Truglio, Program Manager, Blackstone LaunchPad.
- Tim Nichols, Dean of the Davidson Honors College.
- Tyler Munoz, East Missoula Rural Fire District Chief.
- Katie White, Yellowstone Club.
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM Director of Strategic Communications, 406-243-5659, [email protected].
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