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Earlier this spring, Katie Washington was one of three finalists vying to become the University of Notre Dame’s senior class valedictorian. When it was her turn to be interviewed by the selection committee, she told members that the honor wasn’t on her radar four years ago when she arrived on campus.

“I let them know that I came to Notre Dame with the hope of pushing myself to my fullest potential,” said Washington, 21. “I just wanted to do well on every assignment and every exam. I wanted to be the best I could be every day because I’d been given a great opportunity to be here.”

Her hard work has paid off.

On Sunday, Washington will become the first black valedictorian in Notre Dame’s 168-year history. In the fall, she will begin an eight-year joint M.D.-Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University in its medical scientist training program. She has been awarded a full scholarship, worth about $500,000, plus a stipend to help cover housing and living expenses.

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“I’m so humbled by it,” said Washington, a biological sciences major with a 4.0 grade point average. She also already has co-authored a major research paper. The subject: How mosquitoes that carry dengue and yellow fever transmit infection and disease in Haiti.

If you ask her why she wants to be a doctor and scientist, she will tell that she’s been inspired by her parents’ experiences in both medicine and life. Her father, who as a child lost his father and brother, is a Gary, Ind., internist who often gives free medical care to patients who cannot afford it.

Her mother, a surgical nurse, works as a site manager for one of Gary’s federal WIC programs, serving low-income women, infants and children.

“My mom grew up in a Gary housing project at a time when the world was saying, ‘You’re a black woman and there’s so little you can do,'” Washington said. “Both of my parents were in situations where poverty was real. They were the underdogs, but they still fought and worked hard to change their lives and the lives of others.”

While at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Washington has tried to give back by working on anti-violence efforts on behalf of youth. Growing up in Gary, she attended the city’s public schools — with the exception of her high school junior year, which she spent at a boarding school. She said it was not uncommon for the student body to come together to grieve for classmates killed in street violence.

“But we didn’t just focus on physical violence, it was any assault to the spirit or otherwise that kept you from developing into who you wanted to be,” she said.

Washington also has spent time mentoring and tutoring girls in a South Bend high school.

“They reminded me of myself in high school,” she said. “I could remember feeling insignificant and not as beautiful or talented as the next person.”

Washington said that she overcame her insecurities by being surrounded by people — “my family, my teachers, the church ladies and even the women in the school cafeteria” — who reached out to her, becoming advocates and allies. Support also comes from a sister who is a nurse, a brother who is completing his residency and another brother who works at a plant in Whiting, Ind.

“I wanted those girls to feel like they had someone championing them,” Washington said. “I told them they didn’t have to feel isolated or marginalized.”

When you talk to Washington, you have the sense that she’s equal parts cheerleader and coach; student and instructor. And her valedictory speech will reflect that as well.

Its theme is how to remain grounded enough during life’s high moments so that when the time comes to return to reality, you can get back to work and not feel like the day after is such a let-down.

“Right now, we’re all on a personal high,” she said. “But what do we do the day after graduation when the applause stops and reality hits? A lot of us are scared. I know I’m scared about going to school for the next eight years. My speech is about moving past those moments and being productive despite the angst and anxiety.”

I asked Washington what it meant to her to be Notre Dame’s first black valedictorian. She said she has been moved by the number of strangers who have expressed their well-wishes. She has received e-mails and telephone calls from representative of churches and corporations. She said even a prisoner who’s her age sent her a letter of congratulations.

“Some older people speak about the pride they feel, based upon the things that have transpired in their lives,” she said. “But being valedictorian gives me such an overwhelming confirmation that I’ve been on the right path by holding to some simple principles of being kind to people and always doing the best that I can, in whatever I’m doing.”

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