Justin Berlage of Decorah High School has been named a semifinalist for the 2023 U.S. Presidential Scholars program, one of the highest honors bestowed upon graduating high school seniors in the country.  He is the son of Jodi Enos-Berlage and John Berlage of Ridgeway.

Out of nearly 3.7 million graduating high school seniors from across the country, over 5,000 students were identified as candidates for the program, which originated in 1964 by executive order of the president. Application to the program is by invitation only. This April, 628 semifinalists were selected, including eight students from Iowa. Scholars are selected on the basis of superior academic and artistic achievements, leadership qualities, strong character, and involvement in community and school activities.

Berlage plans to attend MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall to study mechanical engineering, with special interests in computer science and robotics. 

Berlage is a National Merit Finalist and has played a key role in leading the Decorah Robotics team and a Decorah Envirothon team to regionals and back-to-back competitive appearances at state competitions. He attended summer programs at NYU-Tandon School of Engineering and Carleton College Summer Program in Computer Science/Robotics. He has also been involved in High School Mathematical Competition in Modeling (HiMCM), soccer, National Honor Society, and chorus. He is a graduate of St. Benedict’s K-8 Catholic School in Decorah. He is also a member of the Madison 4Hers 4H club.

For his application to the U.S. Presidential Scholars program, Berlage was required to submit a photograph of something of great significance. He chose a picture of a K’Nex roller coaster that he designed and built when he was eight years old. In his related essay, he explained how the many hours and years he spent building various items using K’Nex materials instilled creativity, testing of ideas, risk-taking, confidence, and joy—attributes that he later applied to robotics, engineering, and computer science. Other major influences described by Berlage included growing up in a household and community where education was highly valued, reading hundreds of books a year from the Decorah Public Library–further supplemented by Dragonfly Books–and growing up on a farm, which developed problem-solving skills, a strong work ethic, and an appreciation for the fragility of the natural world.

In his response to the essay prompt “If you could improve one thing in the world, what would it be, and how would you change it?”, Berlage focused on elevating environmental education at the K-12 level, intentionally integrating it as a required core subject in elementary, middle school, and high school, equal in importance to reading and math and taught in a similarly successive fashion. He emphasized that these changes to the educational system would give his generation their best chance of living in a sustainable future.

The Commission on Presidential Scholars, a group of up to 32 eminent citizens appointed by the President, will select approximately 160 U.S. Presidential Scholars program finalists. The U.S. Department of Education will announce the Scholars in May.

Margaret Aitken Haggerty, a Chair of the Commission on Presidential Scholars, remarked, “Regardless of the final outcome of the competition, it is a great honor and an exceptional accomplishment to have reached the semifinalist phase in this highly selective and prestigious program.”

Justin Berlage at 8 years old with the K’Nex roller coaster he created.  He submitted this photo as part of his application for the U.S. Presidential Scholars program.
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Justin Berlage