Top graduates of Catholic high schools share plans, memories

EDITOR’S NOTE: The seven Catholic high schools and academies in the Diocese of Peoria have completed commencement exercises. Following are brief biographies of the valedictorians and salutatorians at each school. We congratulate them and all graduates.
We invited the top students to answer two questions: 1) “How would you describe the advantages of attending a Catholic high school?,” and 2) “Name one or two moments you will particularly remember from your high school experience, and explain what made it/them memorable.”


Michael Do, Valedictorian

Parents: Father-Hung M. Do, Mother-Chi Bui
City: Rock Island
Parish: Sacred Heart, Rock Island
College choice: Rice University
Anticipated major: Biochemistry and Cellular Biology
High school activities: Qualifying for the state level all four years for the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics (ICTM) and Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE) academic competitions, Junior Rotarian, National Honor Society, Student Council representative all four years, Habitat for Humanity

Catholic high school advantages:
The ability to form personal relationships with one’s teachers and the camaraderie formed by the small class sizes are two of the most significant advantages I have noticed by attending a Catholic high school. I am absolutely able to call my high school community as my family due to the emphasis on value-centered education. There is clear evidence of every teacher’s investment in the education of all students in a Catholic high school.

Memorable moments:
One moment in particular I will always remember was the funeral for my beloved classmate, Jordan Schmidt. Held in the Don Morris Gymnasium at Alleman High School, the funeral had an aura of immense emotion and reminiscence, and that was when the graduating Class of 2015 truly became a family.

Andrew Lekowski, Salutatorian

Andrew Lekowski

Parents: Karen Budelier Brown, Bob Brown, and David Lekowski (deceased)
City: Rock Island
Parish: St. Pius X
College choice: The United States Military Academy at West Point
Anticipated major: Engineering
High school activities: football, track, Student Council, National Honor Society, Habitat for Humanity, Engineering Club, WYSE, ICTM, Sigma Alpha Delta

Catholic high school advantages:
At a Catholic school, the teachers and faculty focus not only on the academic success of the students, but also their moral development and character. This allows students to excel in all fields of life and become keystone members to the community in which they reside.

Memorable moments:
One memorable moment of high school occurred my freshman year at the funeral Mass of Jordan Schmidt. Our whole school gathered in the gymnasium and mourned his tragic passing. Although a sad time, it was a defining moment of our graduating class that brought us all closer together.
Another memorable moment happened senior year during the Homecoming football game against Rocky. We were down in the fourth quarter and things were looking very bleak, but due to a handful of highlight reel plays by my teammates, we pulled through and won the game.


Ethan Chu, Valedictorian

Parents: Diana and Chae Chu
City: Bloomington
Parish: Holy Trinity
College choice: Rice University
Anticipated major: Undecided
High school activities: Band, jazz band, choir, math team

Catholic high school advantages:
The Catholic community really allowed me to grow in my faith. It’s just great to be surrounded by people with similar values, and I’ll miss that a little next year.

Memorable moments:
It’s all a wonderful, blessed blur. Just being around my friends made everything about high school memorable.

Joe Bevilacqua, Salutatorian

Parents: Megan and Gary Bevilacqua
City: Bloomington
Parish: Holy Trinity
College choice: Naval Academy
Anticipated major: Undecided
High school activities: track and field, soccer, swim, International Club, Interact Club, ambassadors, National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, Science Club, Vita Christi, and WYSE team
Catholic high school advantage

Catholic high school advantages:
In one word, “family.” We are all a family of faith and we are all blessed with a great education in the faith as well as in our more secular subjects.

Memorable moments:
As I am writing this I am on a friend’s phone at the state track meet and it makes me think of all the solidarity that my Catholic community has. One of my favorite memories of high school is “Rock the House,” hosted at the school at the beginning of the year. All the students come for a night of faith, games and fun. It ends with a candlelight Mass. It is my favorite memory because I think it is a perfect example of how faith is fun and the solidarity seen between the students was incredible.

Laura Burns, Salutatorian

Parents: Charles and Kelly Burns
City: Bloomington
Parish: Epiphany (Normal)
College choice: University of Illinois
Anticipated major: Biology (premed)
High school activities: choir, jazz choir, band, spring musicals, Art Club, World Youth in Science and Engineering, National Honor Society

Catholic high school advantages:
I think that most of the advantage of attending a Catholic high school was that we were allowed to talk about moral issues and discuss our feelings about them at school with teachers, friends, and classmates. We spent a lot of time discussing big topics like chastity. We even had some really great speakers like Jason Evert come to our school to talk to us about the issue. Much of the teachings on chastity extended to just teaching us about self-value and respecting ourselves and others which I think was a really important thing for me to learn at this age. Catholic schools focus a lot on teaching us to be good people, not just good scholars and athletes.

Memorable moments:
One of my most memorable moments at Central Catholic was a holiday celebration which took place for all of the members of the band. It was called BandGiving. It was sort of a potluck, where we each brought a dish for the table. Our band directors supplied some lasagna and other delicious main courses. And we just spent some really wonderful quality time together as friends. It was very comfortable, and casual, and real. We were just a big group of friends having a great time together and being thankful for it.
I also remember my experience being in the musical this year. Our musical was “Annie” and I was blessed to get to play the role of Annie. It was a lot of hard work, but it was really incredible to watch the whole thing come together and I will always remember the experience as one of the greatest of my life.


Cory Bugelholl, Valedictorian

Parents: Robert and Theresa Bugelholl
City: Ottawa
Parish: St. Columba
College choice: Franklin College (Franklin, Indiana)
Anticipated major: Applied Mathematics
High school activities: cross country, track, Key Club, National Honor Society

Catholic high school advantages:
You are encouraged to express your faith, which allows you to grow in a deeper relationship with God.

Memorable moments:
Qualifying for the cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track state meets my senior year. I was able to do it with both my best friend and coach right by my side, which truly made it memorable.

Madison Anderson, Salutatorian

Parents: Ken and Eva Anderson
City: Leland
Parish: St. John the Baptist, Somonauk
College choice: University of Missouri-Columbia
Anticipated major: Physical Therapy
High school activities: National Honor Society, Phi Theta Kappa, WYSE team, Order of the M (student ambassador), Fine Arts Club, tech crew for all plays and musicals, Key Club, cheerleader all four years. I was in the Running Start program that allows students to graduate with 64 college credit hours, so I graduated with an associate’s degree in art.

Catholic high school advantage:
Describing the advantages of a Catholic school is easy; there are so many opportunities I know I would not have experienced anywhere else. Retreats, leadership conferences, speakers, weekly Mass, priests as chaplain and teachers, and a chapel are only a few of the many advantages. Marquette has made me fully submerge into my faith and that all began with the speaker we went to freshman year. Since then, I have found myself more open, more determined, more spiritual, and more virtuous. Also, having a chaplain to talk to about anything is imperative for my spiritual guidance and I am grateful. The same goes for my teachers. I know they are all there because they care about our well-being and they will do anything to guide us the right direction.

Memorable moments:
On the pro-life trip to Washington, D.C., this year we stopped in Toledo, Ohio for service work. I worked at Little Sisters of the Poor, which is a nursing home for the less fortunate that is run by nuns. I could tell that the elderly truly loved being there, and the nuns would do anything to help them. For the nuns working at the Little Sisters of the Poor retirement is not an option; they work until they die, or are unable to physically and mentally work any longer. That thought is intimidating, yet inspiring to think that these women dedicate their lives to their residents. I will forever remember the feelings of joy and happiness I felt while there and helping the nuns. I am forever humbled from working there.


Kathryn Neilson, Valedictorian

Parents: Jeffrey and Mary Neilson
City: Morton
Parish: Blessed Sacrament
College choice: Iowa State University
Anticipated major: Materials Engineering
High school activities: varsity swim captain, student government, Key Club, Student Ambassadors, prom committee

Catholic high school advantages:
Catholic schools push students to their limits in so many ways: emotionally, spiritually, and academically. No other type of school facilitates such a well-rounded education and creates such versatile people.

Memorable moments:
Helping to organize PND’s Christmas Basket Drives was the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I was able to meet new people while helping others. In addition, I’ll always remember my Senior Prom with Sean Hinchee and all of my friends.

Andrew Harlan, Salutatorian

Parents: Joseph Harlan and Aurzella Shaughnessy Harlan
City: Peoria
Parish: St. Philomena
College choice: Northwestern University
Anticipated major: Communication Studies
High school activities: yearbook co-editor, Student Ambassador president, Drama Club president, community theatre, National Honor Society, Scholastic Bowl

Catholic high school advantages:
A Catholic high school gives its students an instantly familiar environment in which to attend school. Many things change throughout four years, but Catholic high schools like Notre Dame help the faith lives of their students remain constant. I was presented with scores of opportunities to attend Mass, Confession, and Adoration.
Likewise, throughout four years, I learned about deeper nuances and facets of Catholicism that I had never before encountered. In these and more ways, my faith was immeasurably strengthened.

Memorable moments:
This past fall, I had the opportunity to direct a one-act play with a cast of five of my classmates. I am so thankful to my teacher and peers for trusting me with the job, as it gave me invaluable insight on leadership and creativity. From the back of the auditorium, I watched the success of the cast and crew on opening night, and I was overcome with joy and gratitude. I will never forget the experience of working with such a talented group of students and friends.


Joseph Kim, Valedictorian

Parents: Dr. Paul Kim, Mrs. Renee Kim
City: LaSalle
College choice: Northwestern University
Anticipated major: Chemistry and Spanish double major
High school activities: tennis, golf, Scholastic Bowl, student government president, ambassadors, WYSE State Team, Venturing Club, Last Supper Club, bowling, Chess Club, Rocket Club, Bridge Building Club, Science Club, spring musical

Catholic high school advantages:
The biggest advantage that a Catholic high school has to offer is the integration of Christ into every class. Beginning every class with prayer served as a constant reminder of God’s presence in everything we say and do. The religion courses every semester are advantageous, as they teach even the non-Catholic students about important church history and doctrine. The last main advantage of attending my Catholic high school in particular was the small class sizes. Small classes fostered a family atmosphere throughout every grade. St. Bede Academy is more than a school, it is a family consisting of every alumnus and current student.

Memorable moments:
I will always remember the first test I took in my AP chemistry class junior year. I was sitting next to my best friend the day before the test and our teacher told us that this test would be the hardest test we had ever taken and that it was meant to demoralize us. I looked at my friend and we shared each other’s fear of the next day. When we came in on the day of the test I remember getting the test and five minutes in realizing it was everything our teacher promised and more. I looked over at my friend as he looked back at me and we just started laughing.

Cassidy Donnelly, Salutatorian

Parents: Richard and Karen Donnelly
City: Tonica
Parish: St. Valentine, Peru
College choice: University of Illinois
Anticipated major: Bachelor of Science, with Science, Pre-Vet and Medical Concentration
High school activities: golf, cheerleading, Glee Club, Venturing Club, prom committee, competed and placed third in math in Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering, piano teacher, competed and placed first in IHSA piano competition

Catholic high school advantages:
One of the most important advantages was my faith and an opportunity to practice it regularly with friends having similar interests and beliefs. St. Bede Academy is a smaller school, which gave me the opportunity to become close friends with my entire class. I am certain many of these friendships will continue well into the future and they helped play a role in who I am today.
Another advantage is the close relationship and one-on-one attention I received from many of the teachers at the Academy. Teachers take the time to get to know you not only as a student, but as a person, and they take a personal interest in your success.

Memorable moments:
Many were from the extracurricular activities the Academy offered. One experience I spoke of in my salutatorian address was the powder puff football game of my senior year. The senior girls dominated the junior girls, but the highlight of the evening was my boyfriend (who had borrowed my cheerleading uniform) dancing and doing cheers on the sidelines while the girls played football. The student body and all in attendance got quite a kick out of it!
Another experience I will always remember was a mission trip a group of students from St. Bede took to Kentucky the summer between my junior and senior years. Our group volunteered in soup kitchens and assisted in building homes for the needy. This opportunity brought our group closer together, as we realized just how fortunate we were. I left that trip a much better person and hope to continue my service work as I leave St. Bede Academy for the University of Illinois.
The Academy provided me with such wonderful memories and opportunities for which I will be forever grateful.


Yan Cen, Valedictorian

Parents: Father is Xu Cen, Mother is Yun Ma
City: Beijing, China
College choice: University of Rhode Island

Yan was an international student who returned to China after graduation and could not be reached for comment prior to The Catholic Post’s deadline.

Wesley Kramer, Salutatorian

Parents: Trent and Jeanne Kramer
City: Champaign
College choice: University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign
Anticipated major: Mechanical Engineering
High school activities: Golf, tennis, student council president.

Catholic high school advantage:
Attending a Catholic high school has given me the unique opportunity to learn about the Catholic faith. Coming from a Protestant background, I knew so little about the Catholic Church. Saint Thomas More helped me to understand and appreciate it so much more and exposed me to an entirely new community of believers. Catholic education has challenged me to look deeper into my own faith and to ask so many more question in order to solidify what I believe.

Memorable moments:
I will always remember going to State for golf my junior year. So much happened in those two days, but a couple things that stand out are the night we spent as a team at the hotel and the practice round we had beforehand with each other. The golf team was just a great group of kids and a lot of fun to be around.


Sarah Larson, Valedictorian

Parents: Brian and Judy Larson
City: Danville
Parish: St. Paul
College choice: Truman State University
Anticipated majors: English and Chemistry
High school activities: cross country, basketball, track and field, Scholastic Bowl, National Honor Society, WYSE Academic Challenge

Catholic high school advantages:
Teachers are more invested in their students’ well-being, academic and otherwise. Also, class discussions are more common and are allowed and encouraged to include God and religion.

Memorable moments:
My sophomore year, our Chemistry II class made a going-away video for our teacher full of references to our two years together. I think that is a testament to the personal bonds you form in a Catholic school community.

Dania De La Hoya, Salutatorian

Parents: Teresa and Alejandro De La Hoya
City: Danville
Parish: Holy Family
College choice: Illinois State University
Anticipated major: Journalism
High school activities: chorus, Students Taking A New Direction, National Honor Society, track, cross country

Catholic high school advantages
Students don’t feel pressured to hide their faith, nor are they restricted from simple actions such as praying in the classroom or praying before a meal. Christian values are instilled in students from a young age and there is a strong focus on serving the community, whether it be through service hours or service groups such as Students Taking A New Direction

Memorable moments:
The summer before my sophomore year of high school, my older brother, a recent Schlarman graduate, passed away. His classmates organized a candlelight vigil in his memory, and the support my family and I received from the student body and faculty is something I will never forget. My high school experience was unique in how personal it was. Moments such as this one made it feel like a family, not just a school.

SPALDING PASTORAL CENTER | 419 NE MADISON AVENUE | PEORIA, IL 61603 | PHONE (309) 671-1550 | FAX (309) 671-1595
© Copyright 2021 - The Catholic Post || 2 || All Rights Reserved || Design by