SOUTH BEND | Katie Washington, a biological science major from Gary, will make history next month as the first black valedictorian at the University of Notre Dame.
Washington will present the valedictory address during commencement exercises May 16 in Notre Dame stadium.
Rochelle Valsaint, chairwoman of the black alumni of Notre Dame, said Thursday that as far as she has been able to determine, Washington is the first black student to be named valedictorian.
"With the rigor of her studies, she has succeeded in being both dedicated and ambitious as well as socially adept," Valsaint said.
While university officials said they don't keep records of the valedictorians' race, university spokeswoman Julie Flory said, "I personally don't recall us having a black valedictorian before."
School officials, family and friends say Washington is well-rounded and has polished her leadership skills through research and volunteer activities. She practically grew up in her father's doctor's office in Gary.
She remembers being a little girl and getting dropped off from school with her bag filled with books, papers and pencils and sitting down to finish her homework. As she got older, she would go in with her father, William Washington, and visit some of the patients.
Washington also had a chance to see her mother, Jean Tomlin, using her healing skills as a nurse at the Women, Infants and Children program in Gary.
Katie Washington's brother Mark is completing his residency at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Her sister Terry is a nurse. Another brother, Navy veteran Vincent White, works for BP.
It's no wonder Washington, 21, is following in her family's footsteps.
Washington, who earned a 4.0 grade point average, also has a minor in Catholic social teaching. She has conducted research on lung cancer at the Cold Springs Harbor labs and performed genetic studies in the university's Eck Institute for Global Health on the mosquito that carries dengue and yellow fever. She is the co-author of a research paper with David Severson, professor of biological sciences.
Washington has been accepted at five different universities, including Harvard. She plans to pursue a joint M.D./Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University.
"I am humbled. I am in a mode of gratitude and thanksgiving right now," she said by phone Thursday from Baltimore, where she was in meetings with Johns Hopkins officials.
"I have had so much support, people who really wanted to see that I reached my full potential. They all had my best interest at heart," Washington said.
Washington is not 100 percent sure of what kind of doctor she wants to be but said she plans to train as a physician scientist with the intention of treating patients with disease.
William Washington said he is impressed with his daughter and her plans.
"She's not in this for the money. She is committed to serve," he said.
Tomlin said her daughter never brought home anything less than an A throughout her school career.
"Katie works so hard," Tomlin said. "I told her when she went to Notre Dame, 'You are representing your family, your church and the city of Gary. Make us proud.'"
West Side High School Principal Judy Dunlap said she is thrilled with Washington's success.
"We are elated to have someone who was the valedictorian of her high school class go on to become the valedictorian of Notre Dame," Dunlap said. "It is a great honor not only for West Side but also for the city of Gary for this young lady to come out of Gary and continue on to Johns Hopkins University."
Washington was the West Side High School valedictorian in 2006.
Former English teacher Terri Ransom said Washington always has been interested in a variety of subjects, though science was her favorite.
"She is a very serious worker, very methodical," Ransom said. "She was always in the high-ability programs. She has a great sense of humor. She was on the swim team. She also liked speech and theater activities. She's a very good team player."
Gary school leaders said they are not just proud of Washington but also of her classmate Dominique Taylor, who will graduate from the University of Notre Dame.
Of her friend, Washington said she and Taylor have known each other since they were in second grade at the Banneker Achievement Center, and "she is a phenomenal young woman herself."