On Sunday, Katie Washington, a biological science major from Gary, Ind., graduated from the University of Notre Dame as the first African-American valedictorian in the institution’s 168-year history.
Washington had no intentions of becoming a pioneer at the onset of her undergraduate career. In fact, she entered Notre Dame questioning her ability as a product of Gary Public Schools to compete at such a selective institution, despite having been valedictorian of her class at West Side High School. Her only goal, she said, was to do her best.
But, as classmates began dropping out of the rigorous program, she also needed to overcome the feeling of isolation that set in, a sentiment often experienced by students of color pursuing STEM degrees at predominately White institutions.
With the help of her family and the larger Notre Dame community, Washington persevered and she encourages other minority students to seek the help they need to persist.
“When I opened myself up to people, I found that my professors were beyond willing to help me. They have gone beyond anything I would have thought to ask for,” said Washington, adding that she found wonderful professors, great mentors and a strong sense of community at Notre Dame.
Days before delivering her valedictory remarks, Washington said she felt nervous about the address.
“Everybody is waiting on this moment,” she told Diverse, “and I’m just as excited as everybody else. Graduation is exciting, but the future is filled with lots of uncertainties. The speech is about how we can put our anxieties to rest and continue learning and growing.”
On Sunday, Washington told the audience, “I’ve grown a bit wary of moments of accolades and applause, because of the unnerving silences that often follow. After all the applause is over today, I hope that we embrace the silence as much as we’ve embraced commencement weekend celebrations. Instead of being afraid, we can cherish the examples set by our often unapplauded heroes: our parents and siblings, professors who have pushed us to do more than we’ve ever dreamed of.”
Despite the media buzz her achievement has generated, the 21-year-old has remained humbled and is quick to credit her parents for her success.
“My parents took an active role in my life. They made sacrifices to put me and our family first,” said Washington. “The thing that has always been important to me is remembering my parents’ example of what it means to be giving.”
Providing health care is the Washington family’s business and the recent graduate is ready to stake her claim.
Her father, a physician in Gary, often gives free medical care to patients who cannot afford it. Her mother, a nurse, works as a site manager for one of Gary’s WIC programs, a food and nutrition program serving low-income families.
This fall, Washington will begin a joint MD and Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on a full scholarship.
“We know that she will grow up and do incredible things,” said Dr. David Severson, a professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame. “There couldn’t be a better person to be the valedictorian.”
Washington maintained a 4.0 grade-point average, while finding time to direct the university’s Voices of Faith gospel choir, serve as the student coordinator of the Center for Social Concerns’ “Lives in the Balance: Youth Violence and Society Seminar” and as a mentor for the Sister-to-Sister program at South Bend’s Washington High School.
“I made sacrifices and really tried to budget as much time as possible to do all the things I wanted to do,” she said.
The initial doubts Washington had about entering Notre Dame after attending Gary Public Schools, a system too often defined by its low-performance, have long ago dissipated.
“Gary Public Schools get a lot of negative press,” said Washington. “The perception is that kids from Gary might do well in the schools that they attend but can’t compete on a statewide level.”
Educators in Gary, Washington insists, did a phenomenal job in preparing her for college.