Billings student to sit with Michelle Obama at State of the Union address

2011-01-24T00:00:00Z 2011-01-25T07:12:20Z Billings student to sit with Michelle Obama at State of the Union addressBy ROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
January 24, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Mikayla Nelson, a freshman at Billings Central Catholic High School, was leaving class last week to pick up her little brother from school when her phone buzzed.

In what she describes as one of the most surreal moments of her young life, Nelson answered and found a representative from the White House on the other end.

He told her she was invited to the State of the Union address Tuesday by Michelle Obama. "I was essentially speechless," Nelson said.

This is Nelson's second brush with the Obamas in four months.

She first caught the attention of the White House when she and her team from Will James Middle School competed last April at the National Science Bowl. 

The super-light mini electric race car she and her teammates created won the top design award at the Science Bowl and got their team interviewed during the competition by the Discovery Channel.  

The attention led to an invitation by the U.S. Department of Energy for Nelson to participate in the White House Science Fair in October, where she met Pres. Obama and briefly chatted with him about the car and showed him how it worked.

"It went really well," Nelson said. "I kept my poise."

It would be an unlikely journey for most teenagers, but for Nelson it's simply remarkable. The First Lady's box at the State of the Union address is a long way from the mobile home on Billings' South Side where Nelson lives. 

Money's tight; her mother is on disability and can't work. When Nelson graduated from Will James last spring, she decided she wanted to attend Central High instead of West, knowing she would have to be the one to pay for it.

So she worked odd jobs all summer, eventually landing a steady gig with Central Hobbies. She has saved up and with help from Central, she's been able to cover her tuition.

All along the way, she's been supported by the Billings chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Her science teacher from Will James, Patrick Kenney, is a member.

"He is such a big piece of this," Steve Tostenrud, the chapter's president, said of Kenney.

Kenney has mentored Nelson since the sixth grade, fostering in her a love of science and engineering, the field Nelson hopes to pursue after high school.

And others have given their support. Tostenrud and his wife Pauline took Nelson shopping for clothes Thursday night, helping her pick out an outfit for the evening that would strike just the right note -- a sharp, dark gray business suit.

"It looks pretty professional," Nelson said with a laugh.

Nelson has grown deeply connected to the aircraft club. She spends as much time as she can at the association's hangar at Billings International Airport, where her science bowl team built, tested and perfected its race car.

"I owe them," Nelson said of the club. "If it wasn't for them getting me started on this road, I wouldn't be here."

Going forward, she said it's her responsibility now to build on the support she's been given.

As she prepares to fly out to Washington, D.C., she's trying not to over think the evening, the speech and sitting in a room with some of the world's most powerful people.

"I don't see how you couldn't be nervous," she said. "It's going to be really cool, a really big honor. It's kind of hard to top."

Contact Rob Rogers at or 657-1231.

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