First generation high school student becomes South Dakota’s first Bezos Scholar

Published: May. 17, 2023 at 6:13 PM CDT
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ABERDEEN, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Breanna Wollman is the first person in her family to go to high school, but that’s not the only ‘first’ she’s accomplished so far.

The Aberdeen Central junior also became South Dakota’s first FBLA national champion as a freshman. Wollman is also a part of the successful speech and debate team at Aberdeen Central, and is a state champion in original oratory.

Now, she’s also the first Bezos Scholar from South Dakota.

The Bezos Scholars Program is a year-long leadership development program for rising high school seniors and an educator from their school. It is funded by the Bezos Family Foundation. It begins with an opportunity to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival and continues through the following school year when Bezos Scholars return home, participate in virtual trainings, and launch sustainable community change projects which transform their schools and communities.

“Essentially, what I get out of the program is a free trip to Aspen, Colorado, to the Aspen Ideas Festival with my educator nominee, Mr. Konda. Along with that, we get $1,000 that we can reapply for annually to fund a community service project,” said Wollman.

Getting into the program isn’t easy.

”There was about 13,000 kids who applied, but they brought it down to 12 kids from the United States and five from Africa. I’m the first scholar from both North Dakota and South Dakota, which is something I’m really proud about,” said Wollman.

What makes Wollman’s success even more impressive is that she is a first generation high school student.

”The first gen title is one I’m really proud of. Both of my parents, they both grew up in Hutterite colonies around the state. When my parents were in grade school, they only went to the 9th grade. That was their cutoff, and then, they immediately went into working,” said Wollman.

Being the first person in her family to go to high school means she gets to set the bar, which motivates Wollman even more.

“I think the support, even though my parents never had the high school experience, their support for whatever I want to do, and even my younger sister, has been really important. The freedom to not have anything to reach up to in terms of academics was something that really pushes you ahead in a way,” said Wollman.

Aberdeen Central speech and debate coach Kerry Konda will join Wollman in the program as her educator scholar. Konda says he attributes Wollman’s success to her drive.

”With her, she has been pretty much self-driven. She was the one that went out and found the Bezos Scholar Program. She’s been the one that’s been looking at all kinds of different speech programs. I’ve just kind of stepped in and said, ‘Alright, let’s do this,’” said Konda.

There are some challenges to being a first generation student. Since her parents didn’t attend high school, Wollman says she does rely on the guidance of educators, like Konda, to help her navigate the next thing she’ll be the first in her family to do: attend college.

“The college process has been a big one because finding the financial aid, the scholarships, what I wanted to do, you have to kind of jump right in and try to navigate your way through it without having that previous experience,” said Wollman.

Being a Bezos Scholar means Wollman receives resources that can help her get into almost any college she’d like to. Wollman, however, doesn’t want to go far from home. She would like to attend Northern State University for her undergraduate degree and then the University of South Dakota for law school.

“Honestly, I love South Dakota. I love the schools that the state offers. I know that there are some things in South Dakota that I would like to change, but you have to love a state enough to stay in that area to be willing to make those changes,” said Wollman.

Wollman and Konda will be heading to Aspen for the Ideas Festival in June, just three days after they return from competing at the National Speech and Debate Tournament in Arizona.