Forty-nine high school graduates from across Montana, including Verenice Rodriguez of Belgrade, have been selected for their effort and potential as the fourth class of Montana State University’s Hilleman Scholars Program, named after Maurice Hilleman, one of the state’s most influential, but least known, native sons.

“More than 70 years ago, a farm kid from Miles City changed the direction of his life thanks to a scholarship to MSU,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “In so doing, he also changed the direction of the world, saving hundreds of millions of lives along the way.

“This scholarship program honors the legacy of Maurice Hilleman and the potential of the sons and daughters of Montana,” Cruzado continued. “We want to help them be the next ones to change the world.”

Hilleman was born on a farm near Miles City in 1919. His twin sister died during childbirth and his mother died two days later. He was raised by an uncle and aunt and as a kid helped the household make ends meet by raising chickens.

Hilleman had been planning to go to work at a local department store in Miles City when his brother told him that MSU – then Montana State College – offered scholarships. Hilleman applied, won a scholarship and graduated in 1941.

Over the next 43 years, Hilleman became the world’s leading vaccinologist, developing more than 40 important vaccines for human and animal health. Of the 14 vaccines commonly given to children, Hilleman developed nine.

Among them are vaccines for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis and pneumonia. He spent the majority of his career at Merck & Co., which recently estimated that his vaccines have been given to more than 750 million people worldwide.

When Hilleman died in 2005, scientists quoted in his New York Times obituary credited him with saving more lives than any other person in the 20th century.

In honor of Hilleman’s legacy, MSU inaugurated the Hilleman Scholars Program for Montana residents in 2016. Each year, Hilleman Scholars are selected based on personal essays, nomination letters, grades and financial need. But paramount in the selection process is evidence of significant academic, leadership and career potential.  

Hilleman Scholars are eligible for up to $6,500 for their first year and $4,000 per year thereafter. Contingent upon satisfactory academic progress and exemplary commitment to the program in the first three years, scholars can also be eligible for an additional $3,000 at the end of their junior year to apply toward a study abroad experience. Scholars are expected to graduate in four years.

The MSU Hilleman Scholars Program begins with a month-long Summer Success Academy on the MSU campus. The intensive program is designed to boost college-level math, writing and critical thinking skills and to equip students with effective learning strategies for the coming academic year. The program is administered through the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success.

During the school year, Hilleman Scholars are required to engage in 10 hours per week of activities designed to prepare them to be a successful student, intern or employee. The focus of these experiences shift each year as the students progress through college.