BOZEMAN - Blake Bjornson, a former student body president who continues to lead Montana State University with his passion for sustainability and the environment, has now won a Udall Scholarship.
"It was very exciting. There was definitely some shouting involved," said Bjornson, a junior from Missoula and Whitefish and an honors student majoring in mechanical engineering.
Ilse-Mari Lee, director of the MSU Honors Program, said Bjornson is one of 50 Udall Scholars selected nationwide. He is MSU's fifth Udall Scholar, in recognition of his commitment to an environmentally related career and sustained efforts and leadership toward this goal, even as an undergraduate.
For winning, Bjornson not only receives $5,000, but he joins an elite group of university students who will "change our future," Lee said. Bjornson will meet the other Udall Scholars in August during a four-day orientation in Tucson, Ariz. At the same time, he will learn about new environmentally-focused opportunities that will be available to him.
"As is the case with other major scholarships, the 'Udall' is incredibly competitive," Lee said. "This scholarship recognizes students who have already demonstrated their leadership and commitment to the environment on campus and beyond. To be named a Udall Scholar carries much weight and credibility. It tells the world who Blake is."
Bjornson has done much to change the MSU campus, Lee said. In addition to serving as student body president, Bjornson has been at the forefront of bringing MSU up to green standards. He was president, as a sophomore, of MSU's Network of Environmentally Conscious Organizations (NECO). As a member of the Strategic Planning Council, Bjornson insistently advocated for inclusion of the sustainability goals contained in MSU's strategic plan.
Bjornson is currently working on the Smart Building Initiative (SBI) with Zach Brown, a Bozeman native and fellow Udall Scholar who is student body president at the University of Montana. The Montana Board of Regents hired Bjornson and Brown last year to develop a program that would cut utility costs on both campuses while making buildings safer. The two plan to involve students and incorporate financial incentives in their project. They expect to present their completed project to the Regents in May.
Working with others is the key to his achievements; he doesn't want to claim his accomplishments are his alone, Bjornson said. MSU President Waded Cruzado; Dan Stevenson, assistant director of Facilities Services; and Paul Gannon, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, have all been extremely supportive of his ideas and those of other students, Bjornson said. None of the sustainability projects on campus could have been achieved without them or the support of past and present students, including those in NECO and the Associated Students of MSU. He specifically mentioned NECO founders Josh Jane and Matt Smith, student mentors for Bjornson and recent graduates.
"Nobody does this on his own," Bjornson said. "Everything that has been done was because of group effort."
His interest in the environment was first inspired by Glacier National Park, an influence that he described in his Udall application, Bjornson said. As a high school student, he founded and served as president of the "Environmental Club." He often climbed the peaks in Glacier and still remembers the scene he saw a few years ago when forest fires were burning through the park. The contrast between the smoke and glaciers was stark.
"It was powerful," Bjornson said. "Those fires were happening more often and more often. Forest fires are natural, but I think there's a link there. You can really see the human effect on our landscape."
Bjornson started out majoring in civil engineering, then switched after 3 ½ years to mechanical engineering to fit his growing interest in energy conservation and energy development. He also studied for a semester at Louisiana State University through the National Student Exchange. As an upcoming senior, he will work in Bozeman this summer as an intern with McKinstry, a Seattle-based company charged with upgrading MSU lighting, buildings and HVAC systems to increase efficiency. The company is a consulting, construction, energy and facility services firm that was hired to reduce energy and operations costs in auxiliary buildings.
Bjornson said he looks forward to the internship and seeing how the experience will affect his future after graduating from MSU. At this point, he is considering a career in engineering or possibly earning an MBA and working in an energy-related business.
The Udall Foundation is an independent federal agency that was established by Congress in 1992 to provide federally funded scholarships for college students intending to pursue careers related to the environment, as well as to American Indian students pursuing tribal public policy or health care careers.
Kellie Phillips, an American Indian who is studying nursing at MSU, received an Honorable Mention in the 2013 Udall Scholarship competition, in the Native health category.
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org