Bullying, and at times even physical abuse, were not uncommon during Bella Butcher’s high school tenure – the realities of growing up gay in rural Oklahoma.

Now, in her freshman year at Washington State University, Butcher is looking to help others navigating a similar path. Butcher is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience through a program offered by WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She plans to attend medical school and become a psychiatrist.

“My goal in life is to help as many people as I can,” she said. “It just makes me happy knowing I can make a difference in someone’s life.”

Butcher was introduced to the field after she began seeing a psychiatrist for her own anxiety. Up until then, she knew she wanted to be a physician, but didn’t know what branch of medicine.

“People always ask me, ‘Why psychiatry?’ It’s because your mind is what controls everything. If there’s something wrong there you’re going to struggle with everything else,” she said.

Butcher is one of 7,563 nationwide, and 10 from WSU’s freshman class of 2019, to receive a National Merit Scholarship award – a small selection from the more than 1.6 million high school seniors who entered the National Merit Scholarship Program. She scored a 1490 on the preliminary SAT to automatically earn semifinalist standing. To achieve finalist standing, the new Coug tapped into her past. Her written essay requirement focused on her struggles in high school, specifically, one particular traumatic event at a football game.

She was followed under the bleachers by a group of boys she didn’t know. They pushed her into the bleacher supports and kicked her while calling her homophobic slurs.

“I wrote about how that changed who I was as a person,” Butcher said. “It made me stronger.”

Laura Kuhlman, Butcher’s Honors English professor, called Butcher one of her most dedicated students, a strong writer and a risk taker.

“She has a natural curiosity about the world that makes her do well as a student,” Kuhlman said. “She’s eager to get into class discussion and she brings an enthusiasm to the classroom.”

Butcher is happy she’s found a community where she’s accepted.

“I lived in farmlands and I wasn’t ready to go back to that, but here, no one dislikes you for what you can’t control,” she said. “It surprised me because everyone is so friendly and welcoming. As soon as I got here and started walking around, I was like, ‘I would love to be here.’”

Butcher visits WSU’s Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center (GIESORC) at least once a week. She’s met a few friends along the way.

“I like the environment,” she said. “Even being there and doing my homework, it’s just comforting; I go there when I want to relax and decompress.”

After graduation, Butcher plans to attend medical school. She hasn’t decided which school in particular, but she’s not ruling out keeping it crimson and gray by applying to the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at WSU.

“I love WSU,” she said. “I love the community, I love the faculty, the staff; I love everyone. I mean it when I say Go Cougs!”