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Marilyn Valentine

Billings West graduating senior Marilyn Valentine is planning on studying at the American University in Paris, France, after graduation. 

Earning 40 college credits is extraordinary for a high schooler. Doing so while working 40-hour weeks is almost unheard of.

But it didn’t deter West High Senior Marilyn Valentine. Not even oceans get in her way — she plans to attend the American University in Paris next year.

She overcame a tough first semester at West, becoming a standout student with the guts to march up to a college registrar, as a high schooler, and ask if she could sign up for classes. She’ll graduate with (but really ahead of) her peers Sunday.

Balancing work and school wasn’t easy, but Valentine committed to her path.

“I had to make time for both,” she said.

France

Valentine remembers the jitters she had about her first trip to France last summer.

She’d heard stories about distaste for American tourists. She’d be living with a host family for five days, on her own, with only two years of French courses under her belt.

“It’s not just a tourist trip,” said West High French teacher Nicolette Schuman. “For a lot of kids, this is really a scary part.”

Instead, “it was like the curtains opened up, that this is where I want to be,” Valentine said.

She still stays in touch with her host family and relishes the culture. It set in motion her plan to attend college overseas. The American University in Paris teaches courses in English and enrolls many American students.

“You’re living like a Parisian,” Valentine said. “(But) you have this community where you have people to talk to if you’re homesick.”

“To independently look at a university in Paris, to take this upon herself … it’s an amazing amount of initiative,” Schuman said. “But that’s kind of who she is.”

Making the first trip happen was its own challenge.

Valentine worked basically full-time through the majority of high school because she needed to; she bought her own car, she plans on paying for her college education, and she needed to pay her own way to France. In addition to working, she raised funds for her trip.

She had already had practice with the demanding schedule, working through most of high school.

Her work schedule after school usually had her putting in about six hours each weekday afternoon and night, plus work on Saturdays.

“I needed the income and I needed the good grades,” she said.

Sundays became her lone study-slash-chore-slash-shopping-slash-anything else day.

“I never really had a day of rest,” she said. On school breaks, “I would just totally shut down and go to sleep for two days.

“(But) I would always put school first.”

Turnaround

School didn’t always have that emphasis. Valentine failed some courses during her first semester of her freshman year, and ended up in a credit recovery course overseen by chemistry teacher Kari Field.

Field saw a talented student who wasn’t putting in the effort to realize her potential.

“I really kind of challenged her and encouraged her. I kind of got into her face a little bit about — ‘What do you want to do?’” Field said. “She just needed to believe in herself.”

Field's belief in her had a huge effect on Valentine.

“She made me understand that I was smart and had worth,” Valentine said.

She didn't improve so much as transform.

“When she turned things around, she went from not caring at all to putting forth 10 times the effort that other kids did,” Field said.

Valentine had Field again two years later in chemistry. Field kept pushing her, and convinced her to move up into an honors class.

“When she would turn something in that wasn’t quite up to par, I didn’t cut her any slack,” Field said. “She knew she was better than that. … Then she got to where she expected that level from herself.”

Field sometimes saw frustration from Valentine that work placed such demands on her time, frustration with the opportunity cost of school or social activities.  

“It’s tough for any kid,” Field said. “It was incredible what she’d do (to succeed).”

Valentine realized she was on track to graduate easily. Instead of filling up on high school electives, she pursued college courses, both through a program that let her take classes at Montana State University Billings and a program that offered college-level classes at West.

She took an unusual route, approaching MSUB before classes were approved through West.

“I was like, 'I’m still in high school, but I want to take classes,'” she said. The unconventional approach led to meetings with administrators, who ultimately signed off on her schedule.

“That was something I had to fight for,” she said. “I don’t want to have a pile of student debt.”

Valentine has cut down on work, taking a breather before leaving for France in August. She plans to study math and computer science in college, with the latter being a practical decision and math being more of a passion.

“If I work hard enough, I’ll get the answer, and I just really enjoy that type of gratification,” she said.

Schuman puts Valentine in a rare class of student.

“I can count them on my fingers,” Schuman said. “They’re going to make things work out for them, no matter where they go.”

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