Helena High School student Claire Downing had a long list of academic accomplishments even before she was named a presidential scholar during her senior year.
For the past year, Downing served on the Helena Public Schools board of trustees as student representative for HHS. She was the National Honor Society vice president for the school, president of the Montana 4-H Ambassador Officer Team and a multi-award-winning science fair competitor.
Downing is also Helena's sole presidential scholarship finalist for 2021.
HHS principal Steve Thennis said in his 29 years at the school, he has had the opportunity to work with students who have unbelievable gifts. He said he is humbled on a daily basis by students' scholastic, artistic and athletic abilities and the social consciousness of these students who work tirelessly and give back to the Helena community. Thennis said Downing is a student who has excelled in every possible arena.
"To read her list of accomplishments is astounding. None of her accomplishments have been simple tasks," Thennis said. "Above all else may be her resiliency and her positive mindset. It isn't necessarily that she has accomplished so much, it is how she goes about it."
Thennis said Downing has such an air of kindness and humility as she goes about her day-to-day tasks and interactions with others.
"She carries herself in such a way that she is a model of decency, character and integrity for any person of any age in our community," Thennis said. "I am so grateful I was allowed an opportunity to work with such an amazing young adult."
Downing said she never really considered the fact that she could become a presidential scholar. She spent so much time on other projects and accolades that it wasn't until others brought the presidential scholarship to her attention that she began to think about it.
"Going into senior year, I was so focused on other accolades that I didn't even know about this one," Downing said. "When I found out I thought, 'Oh well, I've missed out on like four trips to Washington, D.C., so I may as well do it.' It also felt like it was a good way to meet new people from around the country."
According to Downing, another big aspect of pursuing presidential scholar status was the chance to recognize one of her teachers. Downing chose to honor HHS science teacher Tyler Hollow, who she said had made a profound impact on her academically.
"My teachers have been such a contributing factor to my success," Downing said. "It is such a pleasant surprise to make it this far."
Hollow first met Downing as a part of Helena High School's Envirothon Team, which Downing joined early in her high school career.
"She demonstrated her passion for the environment there," Hollow said. "And we provided her an avenue to shine and share just how much she knew about the natural world."
According to Hollow, Downing is the type of student who would figure out what she wanted to study and then set out to learn more. However, he said she didn't stop at simply researching that topic. He said when Downing decided she wanted to learn more about fisheries, she secured an internship and spent significantly more time outdoors learning about fish ecology. Hollow said Downing's desire is to leave the natural world a better place than she found it.
Hollow also spoke briefly about Downing's creative approach using a relatively unknown method to improve recession in a post-fire environment. He described it as Downing "finding an innovative solution to a real-world problem."
"With all great scientists you have to be a great communicator," Hollow said. "Claire is well-rounded in that she is both an excellent speaker and writer."
Downing described the presidential scholarship as "the cherry on top of all my high school achievement." She said it is a reflection on more than just herself and her own academic success. To Downing, this award reflects on the success of Helena High School, her teachers and the administration staff there.
The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program is designed to recognize talented high school seniors from across the U.S. The program was created in 1964 and has since chosen 161 students each year to become presidential scholars. It is widely recognized as one of the nation's highest honors for a high school student, according tot he U.S. Department of Education.
Typically the honor involves a trip to Washington, D.C. However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, scholars are being awarded virtually this year. Downing unfortunately will once again miss her chance to go to D.C.
Downing will soon leave for boot camp as part of a Navy ROTC scholarship she has earned. She chose to attend college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. There Downing hopes to study ecology, evolution and biology, furthering the work she did in high school.
This tracks with Downing's high school science fair projects and her role in HHS's Glacier College class, which studies the park's ecology.
Downing said she chose Vanderbilt in order to change everything about her situation.
"It was the perfect combination of prestigious and me also wanting to make myself as uncomfortable as possible," Downing said. "I love Montana. I will come back to Montana, but I feel like I can learn a lot by removing myself from easy options."