Lake Country Faces: Pine River-Backus senior worked to make up for lost time

Zeke Zwart's future has many potential options

Zeke Zwart.png
Zeke Zwart, a Pine River-Backus High School senior, turned his academic performance around in his senior year once he realized what he wanted to do after graduation in May 2023.
Contributed / Zeke Zwart

PINE RIVER โ€” Some students have life planned out well before reaching their senior year of high school. For those who don't, Zeke Zwart is evidence it's never too late.

Until last year, Zwart didn't have a plan after finishing at Pine River-Backus High School. He also didn't have much drive.

"During all the COVID stuff, I wasn't the best student. I didn't really care the most about school. It was just kind of a whatever thing for me," Zwart said. "I don't really know what happened one day junior year, but it just kind of kicked in that I want to do something with my life. And I really need to work at that.

"And if I want to do something after high school, then high school is something that I need to put a lot of effort and focus into to make sure that I do well," he said. "And so that was something that I had to kick myself in the butt for and get into gear."

Zwart likely didn't realize how closely his teachers were watching until he visited Counselor Mary Sigan to talk about scholarships and college. It was then that he was introduced to Sourcewell's Students of Character program, when Sigan told him he was nominated.


Zwart was surprised to find that not only had he been nominated for the honor by his math teacher, Janice Oakley, but he was accepted.

Oakley's nomination read: "Even though Zeke has experienced many challenges in the past few years, he has persevered with grace and tenacity. All his teachers have been impressed with the way he handles hardships. He has also turned his grades around. Zeke never thought about college until last winter. Now he plans to attend school for graphic design."

"She said that she could tell I always put in the effort," Zwart said. "And I always at least try it. And even if I didn't feel like I knew it as well as I could, I was always trying to help other people."

Oakley's nomination earned Zwart a trip to the April 19 Students of Character banquet in Staples that honored 46 students. Zwart's perseverance was recognized with a $750 scholarship.

This was the first time Zwart had ever heard of the award. Often, the first time a student hears about Students of Character is when either they or a friend receive it.

The Students of Character celebration recognizes high school juniors and seniors throughout Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties for their quiet leadership, perseverance and dedication to their community, school and fellow students.

The program is made possible by donations from local businesses, organizations and individuals, which pay for the scholarships and prizes.

The program, formerly called the Rising Star Award, often recognizes students who have not always been in the spotlight for athletics or academic programs. Traditionally, it is also aimed at recognizing students who have overcome hardship.


For Zwart, that meant overcoming his past complacency.

"A lot of the challenges that I have overcome are challenges that I put myself in in freshman year and sophomore year," Zwart said.

He also experienced physical hardship.

"I ended up breaking my leg in the second game of the (football) season this year, and I didn't know that my leg was broken for a couple games," Zwart said. "I ended up playing on it. I played on a broken leg for three games. And then finally the pain was just too bad and I ended up having to go to the doctors and got X-rays. And they told me it was broken."

Zwart said he didn't think he'd be able to play for the rest of the year, but he was able to return to the field one more time for the team's last game before elimination during this, his senior year.

"Unfortunately we lost, but it was still good to be out there on the field one more time with the same kids I've played football with since first grade," Zwart said.

Ever the football player, Zwart has a detailed game plan for his future. He will start at Century College in White Bear Lake for a graphic design degree, but that's not all he has in mind.

"I'd like to go online and get my real estate license," he said. "After I'm out of Century with my associate's degree, I'd like to apply to a university to get my bachelor's in marketing. And then after that, I'd eventually like to own my own online marketing company, and maybe try my hand at flipping houses โ€” buying and selling real estate and everything. Just have a couple of options, in case. You never really know what's going to happen."


Zwart grew up among welders, construction workers and other hard laborers, even working alongside them at times.

"I grew up doing hard labor and stuff like that," he said. "And it's one of those things I can do if I want to, but I've never really enjoyed it."

That realization inspired him to seek other options for a lucrative career using skills he has and enjoys using.

"I like to create things," Zwart said. "I like to make something out of nothing, which is where the graphic design part comes in. And flipping of the houses is just taking something that somebody's abandoned and making it something that somebody could call home again.

"Then with the marketing, I've just always been really good at communication with people โ€” just talking to people and relating to them on a different level," he said.

Zwart is not shy about showing his gratitude for those who are supporting his goals.

"I just want to say thank you to Miss Oakley for nominating me," he said. "Thank you to Sourcewell for doing everything they do for our schools in our community and of course for the Students of Character award. I'm super grateful."

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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