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Montana Wilson: First Native American Student to Win Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Montana Wilson, a senior at Montana State University, is the first Native American student to win the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Montana Wilson, a Montana State University Native American student from Poplar, has won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship that will fund graduate work at the University of Cambridge in England. Wilson, who is an enrolled Gros Ventre of the Fort Belknap Indian Community and a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, is the first Native American Gates Cambridge Scholar in the history of the scholarship program, according to the Gates Cambridge Trust.

Wilson is one of 36 Americans and 54 scholars from other parts of the world to receive the prestigious scholarship funded by the Gates Foundation. He plans to use the scholarship to earn a master’s degree in development studies at Cambridge.

“This means a lot to me,” Wilson said. “The biggest thing is it has a lot to do with the future work I’m going to do. I have every intention of going into economic development, and this is an amazing opportunity to study at one of the world’s leading universities, in a program that is leading the field in economic development. It will give me the tools to come back and help my tribes and various tribes around the country.”


Wilson is the second MSU student or graduate to receive the scholarship; Hilary Fabich, then a recent MSU graduate, won the scholarship in 2012. The scholarship, which was instituted in 2000 by Bill and Melinda Gates, is similar to the Rhodes Scholarship, but recipients attend Cambridge rather than Oxford, according to Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the MSU Honors College. Recipients are selected based on outstanding intellectual ability, leadership potential, a commitment to improving the lives of others and a good fit between the applicant's qualifications and aspirations and the postgraduate program at Cambridge for which they are applying.

Wilson is a senior in the Honors College with dual degrees in economics in the College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science and political science in the College of Letters and Science, and with a minor in Native American studies. While studying at MSU he previously won a prestigious Udall Scholarship from the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation in the Tribal Public Policy category.

“In my frequent conversations with Montana, I have been deeply impressed by his humility, sense of compassion and powerful intellect,” Lee said. “He is destined to lead and serve. It is gratifying to imagine him taking his place within the international community of Gates Cambridge Scholars as they prepare to address the global challenges of the 21st century.”

“Montana represents a new generation of MSU Native American students: worldly, savvy, extremely intelligent, but committed to helping tribal communities with the skills, experience and energy they possess,” said Walter Fleming, head of the MSU Department of Native American Studies. “Within Native communities, Montana is well respected as someone who will put all his energies toward success, whether it is running a complex pow wow or helping tutor a friend.”

Wendy Stock, professor in the MSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics and one of Wilson’s mentors, noted that his record of leadership and commitment to public service is exceptional.

“Montana’s academic ability, intellectual curiosity, positive attitude in the face of challenges and willingness to work hard, combined with his two majors in economics and political science, will make him a great asset to the Gates Cambridge Scholars program,” Stock said. “Among the thousands of students that I have taught over the past 20-plus years, Montana is easily among the top one percent in terms of intellectual ability, maturity and leadership potential.”

Wilson’s college education began in 2009 at Dartmouth College, where he studied government and entered the Central Intelligence Agency’s Pathways program, a government program established to give students an opportunity to explore federal careers.


As a sophomore, he participated in the global study abroad program Semester at Sea through the University of Virginia, where he encountered life-changing experiences that would steer him toward a new course. One of those occurred after the ship docked in Hong Kong and Wilson traveled to Tibet with a group of students. While there, Wilson said he witnessed a Tibetan monk and nun set themselves on fire in the town square to protest China’s occupation of Tibet.

“As a Native American, I could relate to that feeling of being oppressed,” Wilson said in a 2016 interview with MSU. “That’s what changed what I wanted to do. I realized the CIA was not for me.”

Wilson took a year off from school and returned to his reservation, where he initially interned in the tribes’ public defender’s office. Eventually, he was asked to write motions and briefs for misdemeanor offenses because he had taken a federal Indian law class at Dartmouth. He was so successful that the court administrator suggested he take the Tribal Bar exam as an “educational experience,” Wilson said. He passed the Bar and became a lay advocate for the public defender’s office, eventually winning a lawsuit against a tribal court judge accused of violating juveniles’ rights in her court.

Though he had planned to return to Dartmouth, Wilson accepted a promotion as the

deputy chief prosecutor. He was assigned to adult criminal court and also oversaw juvenile court, arraigning as many as 200 people a week, handling a number of pre-trials, bench and jury trials, and responding to motions.

Being back on the reservation led Wilson to reconnect with his culture and take on more tribal responsibilities. Four years ago, he decided to forgo Dartmouth and enroll instead at nearby MSU.

“I decided Dartmouth was no longer my fit,” he said. “I found out classes at MSU, especially in economics, were comparable to my classes at Dartmouth.”

And, he said, his experience at MSU has been “really awesome” because of the level that he has gotten to know his professors.

“I’m in four different academic programs here, and I have really close ties to professors in all four programs,” Wilson said.

In particular, he credits mentors Stock and Linda Young, head of the Department of Political Science, as well as Lee, with helping him make the most of his education and achieve his goals.

After completing his degree at Cambridge, Wilson plans to come back to Montana to help his tribes. His career goal is to head his tribes’ economic development office, although he says there are other things his tribes are interested in having him help them accomplish as well, and he is open to working where he is most needed.

“I plan to help with issues that (the tribes) prioritize as something they want dealt with,” Wilson said.

“It’s such a huge honor to be able to go to Cambridge, and really I’m doing it for my tribes,” Wilson added. “The hope of this is that other Native American students who come to MSU from my reservation and from other reservations can see that they can accomplish their goals, as well.”

This story was originally published February 15, 2017.