Jamestown student graduating from college and high school

Jamestown High School senior will graduate from college on May 12.

McKenna Barnick 2023.jpg
McKenna Barnick, a senior at Jamestown High School, will graduate from JHS and Lake Region State College in Devils Lake in May. She earned 60 college credits while attending JHS.
Kathy Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

JAMESTOWN — When McKenna Barnick walks across the stage to get her diploma on May 12, it won’t be at Jamestown High School. The 18-year-old JHS senior will be awarded her first diploma — an Associate in Science — at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake before receiving her JHS diploma on May 28.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Barnick said. “Almost doesn’t feel real … I don’t think it will feel real until I’m actually there and walking the stage.”

Barnick is the first JHS senior to earn a college degree before graduating from high school, according to Adam Gehlhar, JHS principal. And she did so with a 4.0 grade point average.

“McKenna has worked so hard to achieve this goal and her achievement is unprecedented at Jamestown High School,” he said in an email to The Jamestown Sun. “She is an amazing representation of what is possible when you are willing to persevere and go after your dreams. Not only is she accomplished academically but she (is) well respected for her humility and character in our school.”

For Barnick, the degree is the culmination of work that she initiated on her own to acquire as many general and science education college credits as possible before attending the University of North Dakota in the fall. She will enter UND as a junior, well on her path to a Bachelor of Science in biology: professional health sciences and a minor in nutrition.


Barnick’s eventual goal is to become a pediatric gastroenterologist.

“I’ve known pretty much since I was a freshman that I’ve wanted to go into the medical field and I wanted to become a physician,” she said, “and that’s obviously a really long path and long journey. So I pretty much just wanted to get ahead, get as many college credits done as I can to hopefully shorten that undergrad.”

Barnick paid the $9,000 cost of her college courses herself, estimating with a college official that she saved $30,000 in costs at a university. She paid for the courses by working two jobs, primarily at Jamestown Regional Medical Center as a nutrition aide, where she works 15 to 20 hours a week.

Barnick, the daughter of JoLene and Patrick Barnick, was determined to pay for her college classes herself, said JoLene.

“That just kind of was her own personal goal,” she said. “And obviously, if she needed to, we would do whatever it took to help her but… that was just something she wanted to accomplish just to know that she did this herself financially …”

She said her daughter learned every position in the kitchen where she works to pick up whatever hours she can to earn money, noting the JRMC staff have been “awesome.” And that opened the door to more than 45 hours of job shadowing experiences with physicians and other medical professionals.

McKenna Barnick said she was diagnosed with celiac disease seven years ago which would spark her interest in gastroenterology. According to the Mayo Clinic (, celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Eating gluten triggers an immune response in the small intestine which, over time, can damage the small intestine’s lining, causing diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, bloating and anemia, and can lead to serious complications. Barnick said she follows a strict gluten-free diet, which is recommended to manage symptoms, and is doing well.

Barnick’s drive to get a head start on her college studies led her to take dual credit courses offered at JHS and online from North Dakota colleges including Mayville State University, North Dakota State College of Science and the University of Jamestown. Dual credit is when a high school sophomore, junior or senior enrolls in college classes while still in high school and the high school grants high school credit for each college course that’s successfully completed, said Dan Driessen, assistant vice president of student affairs and dual credit administrator at Lake Region State College.


“We have kids that take dual credit classes,” said Julie Skunberg, school counselor at JHS who’s worked with Barnick on her goals. “We have different opportunities for that, but for her to …. seek out other colleges where she could get dual credits — truly she’s one of a kind, honestly.”

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Julie Skunberg
Kathy Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Skunberg said she and Barnick were keeping track of her dual credits, believing she would have 50 college credits by the time she graduated from high school. But when Barnick learned that a Langdon, North Dakota, high school student graduated last year from Lake Region State College with an Associate in Science that prompted her to wonder if she could do that, too. She and Skunberg reached out to Lake Region and Driessen met with them, helping determine a path for Barnick to get that Associate in Science degree.

“She is a gifted and talented academic student,” Driessen said of Barnick. “We knew that she could handle this academically, both Julie (Skunberg) and I did, and she had the support of her administration and so from my standpoint, it was super easy. All I had to do was map out the rest of her credits and align it so that she could seamlessly transition over to UND.”

An Associate in Science consists of 60 credits, including 39 general education and 21 elective credits that Barnick has earned since her sophomore year in high school. When she graduates from JHS, she will have earned 27.75 credits; 22 are required.

Barnick will be one of five North Dakota high school seniors who will walk the stage at Lake Region State College on May 12. The other four students are from Cooperstown, Leeds, Devils Lake and Cavalier, Driessen said.

“These five young ladies are doing something that is very, very rare,” Driessen said.

Barnick is not only busy with studies and work. She is active in school activities, including serving this year as president in Key Club, SkillsUSA and National Honor Society and as secretary and executive treasurer for the student council. She is the state champion in medical terminology for SkillsUSA and will compete at the national competition in June in Georgia.

While those activities look good on college applications, that wasn’t the main reason to be part of them, she said.


“I think it’s just kind of who I am and the type of the person I am,” she said. “I like to stay involved and be active in as many things as I can. Some of those things — yeah, like SkillsUSA, I was able to focus on health careers and medical terminology …. Other things, I just like to get involved and it’s fun to be with other people in it.”

Skunberg said Barnick is “inspiring” to others and her story is a success story they will share with JHS students in the years to come.

Barnick has two royal blue caps and gowns with different-colored tassels for her upcoming graduation ceremonies, her mother said, and they are planning a combined celebration for both.

“The No. 1 thing … to me, it’s amazing that she was able to accomplish this,” JoLene Barnick said. “... I’m just super proud of her.”

Driessen praised Jamestown Public School District officials, noting their work “opened the doors’ for Barnick.

“I think it’s great that the Jamestown school system supported her in this endeavor,” he said. “... I just mapped out the classes. She did the work and she had the support of the school district and administration. … Julie Skunberg has been amazing. She’s been an amazing resource for McKenna and it’s been wonderful working through her and Adam Gehlhar and Darby Heinert (JHS). They were all very supportive of this.”

McKenna Barnick said she is proud of what she’s been able to accomplish.

“It’s something I set my mind to, something I could work towards that obviously really hasn’t really been done before and I could just be an example for other students that are like me,” she said. “Because I know if I would have someone else do this when I was in middle school or early high school years, I 100 percent would have gone after it and been inspired by that person.”

Kathy Steiner has been the editor of The Jamestown Sun since 1995. She graduated from Valley City State College with a bachelor's degree in English and studied mass communications at North Dakota State University, Fargo. She reports on business, government and community topics in the Jamestown area. Reach her at 701-952-8449 or
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