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The Bitterroot Valley has two National Merit Finalists this year - both from the smallest schools - Hamilton Christian Academy and Florence-Carlton High School.

HCA senior Johnny Holtzen is a National Merit Finalist – that places him in the top one percent of students in the nation and one of only 15,000 in the country.

Holtzen said the award was somewhat of a surprise.

“It is certainly exciting but I wasn’t expecting it because I didn’t do any sort of specific studying for the standardized test,” he said. “I am certainly pleased to have received the honor.”

Administrator/Principal Stephanie Beck said she was not surprised at Holtzen’s accomplishment.

“Johnny has an unusual gift for seeking out, acquiring and processing knowledge which we identified early on in his education,” Beck said. “This ability clearly aligned him for success in the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) program.”

Holtzen took the PSAT - Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) when he was a freshman and again as a sophomore – as a practice.

Then took the PSAT as a junior when it counted for the award.

Then came a year of waiting.

“It may have been a deliberation period while I was being considered for the award,” Holtzen said.

He said his selection as a National Merit Finalist is good for his resume.

“Various schools have various scholarships and may accept a National Merit Scholar and if I ended up going to certain schools then I would have the option to pay for my full tuition with this scholarship,” Holtzen said.

He has not selected a college for study this fall and is considering colleges that may not grant a National Merit full-ride. He has applied to seven different colleges including Cornell University in New York and Emory University in Georgia, and should hear back from them this month. He is leaning toward Cornell because he has family in the area and knows students who attended there.

“I’ve talked with alumni and it seems like an institution where I would really receive a lot, grow a lot and have a great experience,” he said.

Holtzen said he does not have plans further than college.

“I’m just going to see how things turn out,” he said. “I just want to achieve some sort of stability, hopefully, and if I’m able to get a position after my bachelors that would be great but I may go for my master’s degree.”

In 2011, the Holtzen family moved to Montana from Nevada. He has attended Hamilton Christian Academy for six years.

Holtzen said he is interested in studying economics and business or political science and international relations.

“I love history,” he said. “It is not a great career but if I could I would just learn and talk about history all day. I’ve really enjoyed history classes I’ve taken from Mrs. (Tonya) Horat because she is an intellectually experienced and challenging individual.”

He praised the Hamilton Christian Academy for encouraging students to dig deeper into subjects they find interesting.

“I feel I’ve been able to fully explore things that I feel particularly attuned to at this school due to a less rigid study system,” he said. “I feel that has allowed me to grow and it has helped me figure out what I want to do with myself.”

In extracurricular activities, Holtzen participated in Model United Nations for three years.

“That was an excellent experience,” he said. “I really feel I’ve learned a lot and developed my ability to consider things in the context as they should be – specifically in regards to politics. United Nations is geopolitics and beyond that it is about my ability to speak and interact with people. I’m still an introvert but I was really an introvert my freshman year.”

Holtzen and three other HCA students are gearing up for the Academic World Quest competition that takes place in Missoula next week.

“It is Geopolitical Trivia competition which is a concise description,” he said. “Today we watched a live-stream with the American Ambassador to Rwanda. One of the topics we’ll be discussing next week is the role of American politics internationally, so we were able to hear from an actual diplomat.”

He agreed it would be great to become a diplomat.

Florence-Carlton High School senior Shelby Pallo is also a National Merit Finalist. 

“I am just so amazed,” Pallo said. “I didn’t know what it was before and when it happened I thought ‘Is this a big deal?’ It is amazing to realize I received this prestigious honor.”

Pallo took the PSAT as a sophomore and again as a junior, receiving a higher score the second time. She said she has taken many standardized tests and always done well.

Pallo has a 4.0 GPA, is a voracious reader and credits English classes for her success.

“Being able to read and analyze pieces of literature quickly is what really helped me on the test,” she said. “I read a lot as a kid. One summer I logged my hours and it was over 300 hours, so I read a lot.”

Pallo said she is one of 15,000 finalists and may receive a scholarship. She has applied to three universities.  

“I’d really like to attend Brigham Young University in Provo,” she said.

She has been considering studying law, business and medicine in college and enjoys learning foreign language and math.

“This is my fourth year of Spanish and my bucket list has me speaking four different languages someday,” she said.

Pallo attended a Class AAAA school in Oregon before transferring to Class C Florence-Carlton as a sophomore.

“The schools are very different but you get out of your education what you put into it so if you work hard you can learn just as much as someone at any other school,” Pallo said.

High school counselor Hannah Lillie called Pallo “an amazing young woman.”