When she was 14, O'Fallon's Natalyn Gorazd set a goal to be the best and brightest of her class. After four years at Althoff Catholic High School, she's achieved that goal as one of five female valedictorians.
"It's all very exciting, and I'm so honored to be representing my class. It's really cool getting that validation, because I've definitely worked so hard over the past four years," Natalyn said.
Natalyn is the daughter of Rich and Mary Beth Gorazd, owners of State Construction in O'Fallon. She has two brothers: Jack, 15, a student at O'Fallon Township High School, and Ben, 13, a student at St. Clare's Catholic School.
One of 117 graduates, Natalyn took to stage to address her classmates and accept her diploma Sunday, May 20.
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"Writing my speech for graduation was very nostalgic. It gave me a chance to really analyze and reflect who I was coming in, who I am now, and how much I've grown," she said.
Althoff Principal David Harris said when Natalyn does anything, you can expect "you're gonna get 100 percent."
"She really represents what Althoff Catholic is all about," Harris said.
While she attended St. Clare's in O'Fallon for elementary and junior high school like her siblings, Natalyn said it was her choice to attend Althoff. For her, it was "helpful to go to a smaller school with a close-knit environment, and a spiritual component."
As an incoming student, Natalyn received the Althoff Bishop Braxton Scholarship, which she said "is awarded to the incoming freshman with the highest score on the placement test."
Keeping her standards for success high, Natalyn said she has been on high honor roll all through high school. She served as her the National Honor Society secretary for her class, was an Althoff Catholic Enrichment Core leader, a Rotary Interact executive board member, and a Student Council executive board member.
Natalyn won the Youth Salute Award and is an Illinois State Scholar. She also earned the American Legion Outstanding Performance Award, which Harris said is "highly competitive and picked by faculty."
Another feather in her cap, Natalyn also earned the Knights of Columbus Mildred LeGrand Memorial Scholarship.
She had an ACT score of 34. She also had a perfect unweighted grade-point average of 4.0, and a 5.20 weighted GPA, which takes into account the difficulty level of courses.
But Natalyn said her success isn't just her own.
"All of the teachers at Althoff Catholic are very passionate about their jobs and what they do, and I think their passion and their interests and their subjects allowed me to take that same interest and allowed me to keep pushing and striving for good grades," Natalyn said.
Friends and family "played a big role" in her success, too, she said.
"My friends help make me a better person and helped keep me focused on the things that matter in life," Natalyn said.
She has been a "selfless leader" inside and outside of school, according to Kathy Wuller, Althoff guidance counselor.
"She's always been very giving of herself, and she puts others before herself, and she has a great work ethic," Wuller said.
Natalyn was one of four who was selected to attend the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership seminar summer after her sophomore year by Kathy Schaefer, another Althoff guidance counselor. She has returned since as a HOBY alumni and assists with recruitment, fund-raising and raising awareness.
"HOBY inspires kids to be more active leaders, and I think it changes their life, and Natalyn is the epitome of just what HOBY looks for in student leaders, and she was able to learn a lot from the experience and bring that knowledge back to Althoff," Schaefer said.
In fact, Natalyn led her peers when she co-founded a new club called Crusaders Take Action her junior year after attending HOBY.
"It revolves around talking about controversial issues in a safe environment. We also focus on and participate in community service," Natalyn said.
Science-based courses, like her advanced physics and biology, which she obtained dual college credit through Saint Louis University, were her "favorite" at Althoff, Natalyn said, who also attended a bio-science research seminar at Northwestern University last summer.
"I would really like to make a change in the world of medicine by advancing medical technology," Natalyn said.
One day, Natalyn said she hopes she can go to medical school to possibly be a neurologist or cardiologist, but for now she's going to "take it easy."
She plans to spend her summer with friends and family before heading to Purdue University for college in the fall to study biomedical engineering. Helping out with the family business of building homes, Natalyn said she will most likely work in the office and help show houses to potential buyers, too.
"I want to help my family while I can, because my parents have always loved and supported me in everything I've wanted to pursue," Natalyn said.
She volunteers often, such as Memorial Hospital, helping patients, and the Belleville Humane Society, where she completed her senior service project helping to create a page on animal cruelty and other responsibilities.
"Working with the animals at the BHS was one of the most amazing experiences. They inspired me to help animals more," Natalyn said.
When she's not hitting the books, she enjoys playing soccer. She was on the Althoff team that brought home a third-place from the IHSA state competition. She also spends time with friends, family, her dogs and is "very active" with St. Nicholas Catholic Church in O'Fallon in leadership roles for youth and retreats.
Other Shiloh and O'Fallon Althoff graduates
▪ Dillon M. Birdsong, of Shiloh, received a scholarship to attend St. Louis College of Pharmacy, where he will study pharmacy and play soccer.
▪ Daniel J. Braunagel, of O'Fallon, received a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois to study engineering and wrestle.
▪ Zachary K. Braunagel, of O'Fallon, received a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois to study engineering and wrestle.
▪ Alexander R. Conrad, of O'Fallon, received a scholarship to attend St. Louis University to study economics and law.
▪ Dylan G. Davidson, of O'Fallon, received a scholarship to attend Carthage College to study accounting and play golf.
▪ Sydney A. Gillum, of O'Fallon, will be attending Southwestern Illinois College to study psychology.
▪ Anthony Hughes, of O'Fallon, received a scholarship to attend Robert Morris University to play footbal; he is undecided on a major.
▪ John P. Leshikar, of Shiloh, graduated in the top 15 percent of his class. He received a scholarship to attend Texas A&M University to study aerospace engineering.
▪ John P. Lewis, of Shiloh, received a scholarship to attend St. Louis University to study business.
▪ Pierson Lyons, of O'Fallon, is undecided on his plans for next fall.
▪ Joshua A. Mark, of O'Fallon, received a scholarship to attend Southeast Missouri State University to study cyber security.
▪ Michael J. Nastoff, of Shiloh, received a scholarship to attend Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville to study computer science.
▪ Rebecca E. Potje, of Shiloh, graduated in the top 15 percent of her class. She received a scholarship to attend the University of Missouri to study textile and apparel management. She also received a Quail Club Scholarship.
▪ Jack D. Pusa, of O'Fallon, will be attending Southwestern Illinois College at first and would like to eventually study sports management. He received a scholarship to attend Southeast Missouri State University.
▪ Matthew P. Schroeder, of Shiloh, graduated in the top 15 percent of his class. He received a scholarship to attend Greenville College to study political science and international affairs, and play baseball.
▪ Jordyn K. Steffey, of Shiloh, received a scholarship to attend Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study marketing.
▪ Drew William Toennies, of O'Fallon, received a scholarship to attend the University of Central Missouri.
▪ Benjamin M. Underwood, of O'Fallon, graduated in the top 15 percent of his class. He received a scholarship to attend Murray State University to study energy engineering. He also received the American Legion Award and the U.S. Marine Corps "Semper Fidelis" Musical Excellence Award.
▪ Amanda Vernier, of Shiloh, received a scholarship to attend Southwestern Illinois College. She plans on studying chiropractics after SWIC. She also received scholarships from the Optimist Club of Belleville and the Belleville Rotary Club.