Whitefish student sees career in medicine as way to help others

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Emily Gunlikson at Whitefish High School. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

She described herself as leaning toward perfectionism, with an accompanying streak of competitiveness.

Emily Gunlikson acknowledged this combination can generate stress.

But, as many other high-achieving high school students across the country likely would attest, it can also yield results.

Gunlikson, 18, graduates from Whitefish High School in June with a 4.0 grade-point average and a long list of extra-curricular activities ranging from running track to volunteering in the community.

She’s built the sort of resume sought these days by high school students who have ambitious plans for higher education and beyond.

But Gunlikson said her mission to earn top grades or compile an impressive list of extracurriculars has not been driven by a superficial quest to impress college admissions staff. Although there’s been some of that, she said, the dominant motivation has been less mercenary.

“I’ve always been super interested in learning,” Gunlikson said.

That’s been especially true, she said, when tackling courses in the sciences. Gunlikson said she has taken every science class she could.

And there is another driving force, she said, one suggested by Jeanine Henneford, a local woman who was once Gunlikson’s gymnastics coach.

After completing her sophomore year in high school, Gunlikson struggled with whether to continue in gymnastics, an endeavor she’d started at a young age.

She wondered how Henneford would accept the news she was contemplating leaving gymnastics. There was no need to worry, as it turned out, because Henneford responded without bias.

“She talked to me about following my heart,” Gunlikson said.

That selfless advice helped Gunlikson clarify what she wanted to do. Then and now.

“I decided not to do gymnastics anymore,” she said.

Years later, Henneford’s voice caught when she talked about her former gymnastics student.

“Emily was one of the best kids I’ve had the joy to work with,” Henneford said. “She was a very good competitor, a very friendly competitor. She was always good to the little ones. They looked up to her and she was a good role model.

“She’s one that stands out in my heart,” Henneford added. “Saying goodbye to her was really hard.”

A Whitefish native, Gunlikson is one of three children born to Dr. Ryan Gunlikson, a general surgeon, and Beth Gunlikson, a physical therapist.

She said her parents’ jobs sparked her interests in a career in a medical field. But she said there’s been no parental pressure to follow that path.

“They’ve more encouraged me to do what I want to do,” Gunlikson said.

“I’ve always been interested in helping people. I always felt that being a doctor was one way to be helpful.”

She plans to attend Montana State University and will be enrolled there in the Honors College. Then, unless plans or circumstances change, Gunlikson will attend medical school after college and follow the arduous and costly path toward becoming a medical doctor.

Gunlikson was admitted to Middlebury College in Vermont, but ultimately decided the private school was too expensive.

She acknowledged that growing up in Whitefish, a community considered by many to be comparatively privileged and lacking in diversity, has sheltered her from the harsher realities many communities face.

“It’s hard to remember sometimes that there are other people out there with other lifestyles and other problems,” Gunlikson said. “I think I’m still somewhat sheltered.”

She said her generation is often stereotyped as spending too much time on cellphones and computers. But she said she believes people her age have remarkable potential.

Whitefish High School has about 510 students in grades 9 through 12. Graduation will be June 8.

Gunlikson was asked how she thinks it will feel to walk out of Whitefish High School for the last time as a student.

“People talk about being happy to be free of high school but I liked high school,” she said. “I think it’s going to be scary, but a good kind of scary.”

Ninety-five students are expected to graduate from Whitefish High School at 1 p.m. June 8 in the gym.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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