Montana State University

New MSU scholar program opens doors for small town student

February 23, 2017 -- By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

A freshman in the MSU College of Agriculture, Cole Norskog credits hard work, a desire to receive an education and membership in the inaugural class of MSU’s Hilleman Scholars Program with helping him successfully make the transition from a small Montana high school to MSU. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN — Cole Norskog was one of four students to graduate from Stanford High School in the spring of 2016. Now, as a Montana State University student, he is one of several hundred students in some of the lecture classes he attends.

“It takes some getting used to,” Norskog said of the difference in class sizes. “I went through high school fairly smoothly; it was easy to pay attention and get ‘As.’ Here, you have to stay on top of your stuff or you’ll get left behind.”

A freshman studying agriculture business in the MSU College of Agriculture, Norskog credits hard work, a desire to receive an education and membership in the inaugural class of MSU’s Hilleman Scholars Program with helping him successfully make the transition from a small Montana high school to MSU. Stanford is a town of about 400 people in north-central Montana.

“I grew up on a ranch so a lot of my (work ethic) comes from that,” he said. “There’s never really a day off; there’s always something to do.”

Of his decision to go to college and enroll at MSU, he noted that his father, Kelly Norskog, attended MSU, and he knew the agriculture education was strong. Norskog’s mother is Kelly Woods.

Norskog also believes education can open doors.

“I wanted to pursue something that was going to better me in the future,” he said. “I felt like any degree is better than no degree at all. Getting a degree puts you 10 steps ahead of everyone else.”

Norskog is one of 51 Montana residents the university selected last year for the Hilleman program based on evidence of significant academic, leadership and career potential, as well as on their personal essays, nomination letters, grades and financial need. The program is designed to provide support and resources to students to help them succeed. In return, scholars are expected later in their college careers to serve as mentors and tutors to new scholars in the program. During the school year, Hilleman Scholars also are required to engage in 10 hours per week of activities designed to prepare them to be a successful student, intern or employee.

“Like Maurice Hilleman I am not scared of hard work,” Norskog wrote in his application to the program. “I know that hard work is what it takes to be successful in this life and I want more than anything to be successful and be able to contribute to the agriculture communities across this nation.”

The Hilleman Scholars Program is named after Maurice Hilleman, one of Montana’s most influential, but least known, native sons. Hilleman was born on a farm near Miles City in 1919. His twin sister died during childbirth and his mother died two days later. He was raised by an uncle and aunt and as a kid helped the household make ends meet by raising chickens.

Hilleman had been planning to go to work at a local department store in Miles City for a career when his brother told him that MSU – then Montana State College – offered scholarships. Hilleman applied, won a scholarship and graduated in 1941.

Over the course of the next 43 years, Hilleman became the world’s leading vaccinologist, developing more than 40 important vaccines for human and animal health. Of the 14 vaccines commonly given to children, Hilleman developed nine. Among them are vaccines for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis and pneumonia. He spent the majority of his career at Merck & Co., which recently estimated his vaccines have been given to more than 750 million people worldwide. When Hilleman died in 2005, scientists quoted in his New York Times obituary credited him with saving more lives than any other person in the 20th century.

The MSU Hilleman Scholars Program begins with a month-long Summer Success Academy on the MSU campus. The intensive program is designed to boost college-level math, writing and critical thinking skills and to equip students with effective learning strategies for the coming academic year.

Intensive academic support continues for MSU Hilleman Scholars throughout their college careers. Beyond access to some of the university’s top faculty, this includes tutoring, mentoring, advising and more.

Norskog said he has taken advantage of free tutoring the program offers by meeting with a tutor twice a week for help with an economics class. The one-on-one attention is incredibly helpful, he said. A class specifically for Hilleman Scholars about career success is helpful, as well, and Norskog said he has gotten to know the other scholars through that class and other activities.

Norskog said paying for his education is challenging, but he has been able to do so without taking out loans so far. In addition to his work on his family’s ranch, Norskog has worked on another ranch north of Stanford to earn money to help pay for college. He also bought a herd of 10 heifers during his senior year of high school in order to help finance his education, and the Hilleman Scholars Program provides a monthly stipend for scholarship recipients.

After earning a degree in agriculture business, Norskog would like to work in agricultural finance while continuing to work on his family’s ranch. Ultimately, he’d like to take over that ranch.

Norskog’s mentor predicts his work ethic will serve him well.

“Cole is a very motivated student; he works hard to accomplish tasks on time and always shows up early to everything,” said Mariah Althaus, a civil engineering student and Norskog’s mentor. “He also seeks out opportunities to expand his knowledge, and I believe that he will go on to succeed in life.” 

Norskog said he would highly recommend the Hilleman Scholars Program to others.

“It’s a great program,” he said. “(The people running it) want to help you. They really want to see you succeed.”

But, he cautioned, Hilleman Scholars must be prepared to put in the work.

“It’s not a one-way street; it has to go both ways,” he said. “They’re going to help you out, but you have to work hard, too.”

Invitations to apply to the Hilleman Scholar Program are currently been sent to selected Montana high school seniors who have been accepted to MSU. Applications will be accepted until March 24. More information is available at or by calling the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success at (406) 994-7627.

Contact: Carina Beck, director, Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success, (406) 994-7627 or

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