The decision was simple. After that, it was just a matter of making it work.

Mikayla Nelson, who has competed twice in the National Science Bowl, has laughed with the first man to circle the moon and designed her own super-light mini race car. And she decided she was going to attend Billings Central Catholic High School this year despite having nowhere near enough money for tuition.

She was introduced to the idea of going to Central in the eighth grade, she said. “It just seemed like after having achieved a lot,” she said, stopping for a moment to think, “… it seemed like I should be here.”

Nelson, a freshman at Central this year, was one of the top students at Will James Middle School. She graduated there in June, the recipient of the Principal’s Leadership Award and having led her science bowl squad as team captain to nationals in Washington, D.C., in April.

“We’re very happy to have her here,” said Central High Principal Shel Hanser.

Tuition at Central, which works on a 10-tier sliding scale, costs students anywhere from $4,000 to $7,000 a year, depending on family income.

Nelson, who lives in a mobile home on Billings’ South Side, doesn’t have a lot of extra income. Her mother is on disability and can’t work, and Nelson knew that if she was going to attend Central, she would be the one to make it happen.

She found work at several places this summer — including Central Hobbies, where she continues to work Saturdays — and began putting money away.

“It was my decision, so why should others have to pay for it?” she said.

However, by the time she started at Central, she ended up with all kinds of help.

Nelson spends as much time as she can at the experimental-aircraft hangar at Billings International Airport, where her science bowl team last spring built, tested and perfected the shoe-box-sized, carbon-fiber racecar it used in the national bowl. It’s there that she fell in love with aircrafts and engineering.

“If I could live there I would,” she said, smiling.

It also put her in contact with a number of people willing to help her do whatever she wanted to do. Bob Redding, a pilot and flight enthusiast, set up a scholarship to help Nelson with tuition and even gave her a plane that she sold to help cover costs.

Her science teacher at Will James, Pat Kenney, helped her get school supplies, and a colleague at First Interstate Bank bought all her school uniforms.

Nelson’s hope is to continue to work at Central Hobbies and build up a savings account so she doesn’t have to worry about how to cover the next four years of high school.

“If I save my money and I’m conscious about my situation, I’ll be fine,” she said.

Nelson’s mom, Jennifer Birgenheier, finds it hard to express just how grateful she is. Tuition of any amount seemed an insurmountable obstacle to getting her daughter to Central.

“There’d be no way,” she said.

Still, she knew Nelson would make it work.

“She’s really ambitious,” Birgenheier said. “She was always ahead of her years. I didn’t ever have to baby her.”

Hanser, Nelson’s principal at Central, immediately saw that quality.

“She’s pretty mature, beyond her years,” he said. “A pretty wise kid.”

He sees her as a natural leader, someone who will have an impact on the student body at Central over the next four years.

Kenney, her science teacher from Will James, said Nelson makes her own way.

“While Mikayla has been afforded many opportunities, it is her integrity, dedication, and unwavering loyalty to the investment that she is making in herself that opened up the opportunities that she has become so successful at,” Kenney said.

Nelson is optimistic about her future. She loves science and wants to study mechanical engineering at either the U.S. Naval Academy or the U.S. Air Force Academy when she graduates. Her dream is to work as an engineer at Boeing.

The hard work that’s gotten her to Central doesn’t seem like work at all, she said. “It was work. But when you’re doing stuff you love to do, it’s not really work.”

Contact Rob Rogers at or at 406-657-1231.

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