Top high school graduates of 2021 share future plans, lessons from pandemic

The top graduates of the Class of 2021 at the Catholic high schools and academies in the Diocese of Peoria are pictured near their school logos.

Following are photos and brief biographies of the valedictorians and salutatorians of the seven Catholic high schools and academies in the Diocese of Peoria. We congratulate them, all Class of 2021 graduates, and their school staffs and families for their accomplishments and perseverance through this most challenging year.

The top students were invited to briefly answer two questions: 1) How would you describe the advantages of attending a Catholic high school?, and 2) What were the most significant challenges for you during the 15 months of pandemic and what life lessons will you take from this historic time?

We thank them for sharing their wisdom with our readers. (See related editorial.)


Connor FrenchValedictorian

Parents: Theresa and Randall French; City: Bloomington; Parish: Epiphany

College choice: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Anticipated major: Computer science

High school activities: Scholastic Bowl

Catholic school advantages: The teachers have a genuine kindness and care that carries over to the students and creates a wonderful environment. Additionally, the smaller school size allows for a more personalized experience for each student.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: I found learning from home to be challenging and quite boring while being away from my friends was tough. However, I discovered the value of pure dedication and the importance of finding hobbies.


Isabella Rohrig — Salutatorian

Parents: Jason and Becky Rohrig; City: Normal; Parish: St. Patrick Church of Merna, Bloomington

College choice: Illinois State University; Anticipated major: Biology (on a premed track)

High school activities: President of Interact Club Core Group Class of 2021, tennis (captain senior year), Friends Forever International Bloomington-Normal, Ambassadors Club, choir, jazz choir, band, fall play and spring musical, Vita Christi, Math Team, Craft Club, Mu Alpha Theta, National Honor Society, Scholastic Bowl

Catholic school advantage:  I would describe attending a Catholic high school as the sole feeling that you have everything going for you. At Central I knew I was in a place where I was wanted, treasured, and most importantly, loved. My school’s faculty, staff, and my classmates became my family in education and faith.

Catholic high schools provide a tight knit environment preparing their students for the future with relationship building skills. I walked away from Central feeling confident that I can go in to talk to a professor or reach out to a classmate as I further my academic career. The availability of the teachers and their willingness to invest their time and attention in me has grown my confidence in this aspect.

A Catholic high school also provides a community of people that share the faith. I believe that public school and joining a youth group is a good option for practicing the faith, but a Catholic high school is the absolute best gift that a developing teen in the faith could receive. There is no other place where from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round I am surrounded by a loving family that wants the best for me. Starting off freshman year at Central, I couldn’t have even imagined how much I have grown as a woman in faith. From my teachers’ fun and applicable Jesus talks to questions that arise during class, from weekly Masses to almost daily after school confessions, from scheduled class retreats to the small groups that are offered, there are so many aspects and advantages to being surrounded by a school family who will grow you into a better person.

Since Catholic high schools are reasonably smaller than public high schools, we really are a family that wants the best for each other. I’ve had teachers reach out to me and ask how my day was going if I look sad, teachers offer that I could come in after school if I need help, and the overall dynamic is one of love and one of wanting me to succeed. I know almost all of the students at my school, whether it be through extracurriculars and clubs, or just seeing them around the halls, creating a family like aspect to my day. All of the teachers know me by name and I feel that I have made a personal connection with almost all of them.

Leaving Catholic high school I feel ready for the world. I feel ready for college, ready to achieve my goals in life, and most of all, ready to take living a life of faith into my own hands.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: The most significant challenge for me was communication. It was hard to go from seeing my friends and teachers everyday in class to seeing them on Zoom or WebEx. I’ve never thought about how much I took giving my best friend a hug or my classmate a fist bump after a class report for granted. Luckily for me, my school was able to return to full in-person learning like I know many Catholic high schools were able to, and the hardships brought by the internet-only disconnect were soon diminished.

I know I will be sure to even tell my kids about how “hard” I had it during this time, like I know many parents do today, but the overall lesson of the story will be to reach out to others and make connections. I’ve really had time in quarantine to ponder how much the connections I’ve made really mean to me, and if I didn’t make these connections before the global pandemic started, I may not have made it through this historic time in the same manner that I did today.

Another challenge that I faced was knowing that this was not “normal.” As I trekked through my senior year, I was left also thinking about the shadows of the senior experience last year. Of course it was hard to not have a Homecoming dance or live performances of our play and musical, but the lesson it has taught me is not to compare my experiences to others’ and to be in the moment. It is easy to say that you have it harder than someone else (the grass is always greener) but it is crucial to be present in your own experiences and life so that you are available for yourself and those around you. Of course there is lots to be learned from the experiences of others, but beyond that, it is necessary to be present and make each individual moment the best that you possibly can.


Maris Adeline Green — Valedictorian

Parents: Jim and Bianca Green; City: Champaign

College choice: University of California, Los Angeles; Anticipated major: Business economics

High school activities: Varsity volleyball and tennis, Scholastic Bowl, National Honor Society president, House/Family Captain

Catholic school advantages: The most significant advantage of attending a Catholic high school for me was being able to openly discuss my faith without feeling judged or out of place. I loved being able to connect with teachers and classmates who were strong in their faith just like me and we were able to build off of each other’s thoughts. This was particularly prominent on the LOGOS retreat my junior year.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: It was extremely difficult for me to stay optimistic and motivated during the pandemic. I struggled with remote learning because part of what makes receiving an education so special is the relationships you form along the way. When face-to-face communication was rare, I felt quite lonely which made it hard to be productive. The biggest life lesson I will take from this time is to not take a single thing for granted, no matter how small it may seem. I cherish the time I spend with my friends and family all the more now that I know what life was like without it.


Elise Anne Henkel– Salutatorian

Parents: Marc and Katy Henkel; City: Champaign; Parish: St. Matthew, Champaign

College choice: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Anticipated major: Mathematics

High school activities: Volleyball, softball, tennis, Spanish National Honor Society, Interact Club

Catholic school advantages: One of the advantages of attending a Catholic high school is that many of my teachers have become role models not just in life, but also in the faith as well.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: For me, the most significant challenge during the pandemic was knowing all of the things that would have been happening if there wasn’t a pandemic (ex. school dances). A life lesson that I will take from this is to remember to not take anything for granted and to live in the moment instead of dwelling on what could have been.


Andrew Wiley Craig — Valedictorian

Parents: John and Michele Craig; City: Danville; Parish: St. Paul

College: Purdue University; Anticipated major: Mathematics and Computer Science

High school activities: Golf, Cross Country, Football, Basketball, Track and Field, Baseball

Catholic school advantages: I really enjoy the tight-knit relationship that the staff has with the students and it truly feels like every faculty member cares about the success of everyone.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: For me the biggest struggle I dealt with during the pandemic was online school and adjusting to the lack of in-person interaction with the teachers of my classes. I took from this experience a newfound appreciation for the roles of educators and a better understanding of what I need to do to excel in the classroom.


Gabriel Joseph Lee Huddleston — Salutatorian





Lucas Hoffman — Valedictorian

Parents: Phil and Maribeth Hoffman; City: Ottawa; Parish: St. Columba

College choice: North Central College; Anticipated major: Business Finance

High school activities: Student Council class president, National Honor Society, Key Club, Order of the M Club, World Youth in Science and Engineering Team, senior retreat leader, prom committee, cross country, basketball, track

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic school allows the students to learn about the church’s teachings. It starts from taking a religion course each year. The teachers are very knowledgeable about Catholicism and some of them are even priests, so they can answer any questions a student might have. Not only do these classes teach about the history of the Catholic Church, but they also teach about the correct moral thing to do in real life situations.

A Catholic school provides the students with many opportunities to deepen their faith. For example, every Tuesday there is a chapel Mass with confessions held afterwards. Another example takes place during Lent when every week the whole school does Stations of the Cross together. These are incredible ways to strengthen your prayer life and relationships with God.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: The most significant challenge for me during this pandemic was not being able to get the full high school experience. As soon as everything got shut down, I immediately missed going to school and seeing everyone. I always enjoy talking to people in the halls between classes or eating lunch with my friends or even having conversations with my teachers. With online school, none of this was possible. It was very hard for me to sit down all day in my room in front of a computer.

Also, along with the schooling changes, many activities and sports were altered. If they did not get cancelled, nothing was normal about them. For example, my senior year cross country and basketball seasons did not have any state competitions. This was hard for me because my teammates and I have worked all four years with the goal to make it to state. However, from all of this I learned the life lessons to not take anything for granted and always look at the positives. Until the little things are taken away from you, it is hard to see the importance they have in your life. Now I can see that even with all of the changes, the positive thing is that we still got to enjoy many great things throughout the year. We got to go back to in-person learning, sports were back in session, and now the restrictions are slowly starting to loosen.


Jasmine Mehalic — Salutatorian

Parents: Todd and Gretchen Mehalic; City: Streator

College choice: Aurora University; Anticipated major: Pre-Veterinary Medicine

High school activities: Illinois High School Rodeo Association, American Rabbit Breeders Association, Running Start Program

Catholic school advantages: Marquette Academy High School does not even compare to the public schools in our area. The ability to have a small class, one-on-one help, great teachers, open and honest conversations about God, and being able pray whenever are just a few of the advantages of attending a Catholic high school.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: I would not call the pandemic a challenge, but instead a learning opportunity. Being able to utilize different resources and a different learning forum made me a better student. Not only that, but this new way of learning has made Marquette Academy stronger as a whole with the ability to reach more students. The life lesson that I took from this pandemic is that learning new things is challenging, but there is always a bright side that just needs to be discovered.


Chloe Paulson — Co-Valedictorian

Parents: Thomas and Michelle Paulson; City: Groveland; Parish: St. Mark, Peoria

College choice: Saint Louis University; Anticipated major: Health Sciences on the Pre-PA track

High school activities: National Honor Society President, co-editor of yearbook, All School Council, swimming, AP Capstone

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school provides students with a multitude of opportunities to develop a real relationship with their faith. With daily Mass, class retreats, prayer at the beginning of every class, and a campus ministry department, there is a chance for everyone to immerse themselves in Catholic values.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: The most difficult part of the pandemic was learning how to adapt to the new status quo. Going from almost always having a stimulating environment to being home 24/7 took time to get accustomed to. However, from the pandemic I learned to not take things for granted. I appreciate hanging out with my friends, going to the grocery store, eating at a restaurant, etc. I value the activities that once seemed mundane to me.


Gianna Vitale — Co-Valedictorian

Parents: Amy and Andy Vitale; City: Edwards; Parish: St. Mary, Kickapoo

College choice: University of Iowa; Anticipated major: Biomedical Engineering

High school activities: Theatre program, Student Ambassadors, Lumen Christi, Teens for Life, Irish Chronicle, Earth Club, AP Capstone Candidate

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school has given me opportunities no other schools can offer — a formation in academics, a community of well-rounded peers, a faculty that cares for my education and my growth as a person, and, of course, a focus on the church through our amazing Sisters and priests. With my education, I know that I am entering the world with the skills I need to be successful and change the world for the better. I get to go to school every day surrounded by faculty, staff, and peers who challenge me to grow, learn, and develop in every aspect of my life. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities my parents have given me by sending me to Catholic school.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: The most significant challenge of COVID was to not become defined by COVID. I am incredibly lucky to come from a school that dedicated itself to its students during such an unprecedented time. With that came the challenge of taking my own steps — working from home, applying myself to online lessons, and remembering that COVID was not the event that had to define my junior/senior years.

Yes, the pandemic created obstacles I did not expect to face, but I think the Class of 2021 has been given a chance to re-focus. We now know to appreciate every moment we have with our friends and loved ones now that we can do so again. I enjoy waking up to go to school in the morning because I can go to school again. Most importantly, I savor each family experience more than I ever have before, even if it’s just going to Mass together and having family dinner afterward. Being a senior in a pandemic wasn’t easy, but I am thankful for this new outlook on life.


Olivia Swearingen Ludolph — Salutatorian

Parents: Sheila Swearingen and Mark Ludolph; City: Peoria; Parish: St. Philomena

College choice: Boston University; Anticipated major: Philosophy and Neuroscience

High school activities: President of All School Council, St. Jude Club executive board member, cheerleader, yearbook editor

Pandemic challenges, lessons: In light of the many tragedies that have gone on this year, the challenges I’ve faced are nothing in comparison. However, having the privilege to witness and empathize with those that are profoundly suffering has led me to important understandings about my life and the world around me. I would have to say that the biggest life lesson I will take away from this time is that it’s easy to skew towards the negative. However, real change and growth can only come out of the situations in which I challenge myself to see past negative and, instead, learn from the situations that frustrate me and those around me. In doing so, I can use the lessons I’ve learned to help make this world a more inclusive and empathetic place.


Elaina Wamhoff — Valedictorian

Parents: Matthew and Jennifer Wamhoff; City: LaMoille; Parish: St. Joseph, Peru

College choice: University at Albany — State University of New York; Anticipated major: Environmental and sustainable engineering / Business administration (double major)

High school activities: Volleyball (captain for two years), InterAct Club, World Youth in Science and Engineering Team, volunteer at the Hall Township Food Pantry

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school has allowed me to not only reap the benefits of smaller class sizes, daily religious education, and diverse opportunities, but has also given me great role models of faith and service, as well as a community that has and will continue to support me in all of my endeavors.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: The most significant challenges during the pandemic were the constant changes that occurred throughout every aspect of my life. The form of my education, my daily social interaction, and my activities were constantly changing and evolving. Although that process has been difficult, I have learned that change in its essence is good. In terms of a lesson, embrace change because it can shape your future and transform you and your mindset.


Jacob Schirz — Salutatorian

Parents: Nick and Stacey Schirz; City: Oglesby; Parish: Holy Family, Oglesby

College choice: University of Notre Dame; Anticipated major: Biochemistry and Pre-Med

High school activities: World Youth in Science and Engineering Team (third place in state in computer science and physics), Scholastic Bowl, tennis, bowling, basketball, SBA Ambassadors, Lectio Divina, Last Supper Club, active volunteer at parish.

Catholic school advantages: St. Bede has allowed me to advance myself both in education and faith at the same time. I felt that the smaller class sizes allowed me to connect more closely with my fellow classmates, since we were in all the same classes each year, and my teachers.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: The most significant challenges I found were losing many of the extracurricular activities that I enjoyed most at St. Bede. We lost the ability to go to most of the sports games, certain dances, and many other weekly events. Losing all this caused some of us to complain and become upset. I learned a life lesson in this regard. I realized that it is pointless to spend life complaining and not really doing anything about the things that trouble us. We should instead stop complaining and start doing; we must give our best effort at making the most of our lives and the bad things that happen.


Caroline Adam — Valedictorian

Parents:  Johnna and Tim Adam; City: Moline; Parish: Christ the King

College choice: University of Michigan — Ann Arbor; Anticipated major: Biomedical engineering

High school activities: Student Council Vice President, National Honor Society, four-year state qualifier in Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics competition, two-year state qualifier in World Youth in Science and Engineering Academic Challenge, basketball, cross country, track — captain of all three of those sports as a junior and senior

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school has prepared me for the next chapter of my life in a way no other school could. I have received an excellent education centered on the truths of our faith and have come to know the love of God through my teachers, administrators, chaplain, and fellow classmates.

Pandemic challenges, lessons:  When the pandemic hit, my day-to-day life went from constantly being on the go to having nothing to do overnight. One of the hardest challenges for me was this drastic lifestyle change. However, it taught me to always appreciate the craziness of everyday life and helped me to find hobbies and ways to connect to others outside of social events, sports, and school.


Gage Mowry — Salutatorian   

Parents: Craig Mowry and Barbara Trewick-Mowry; City: Moline; Parish: St. Maria Goretti, Coal Valley

College choice: University of Florida; Anticipated major: Industrial and Systems Engineering

High school activities: Wrestling, cross country, Student Council, National Honor Society, employed at Pinnacle Country Club

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school brought me several advantages. I received a lot of individual attention and was surrounded by individuals who share similar values to me, both spiritually and academically. Having the ability to attend Mass, confession, and adoration on almost a weekly basis was a true blessing that cannot be experienced at any other high school.

Pandemic challenges, lessons: Over the course of the pandemic, I struggled to find things to do to occupy my time. Being stuck at home a lot forced me to find new interests. I took more hours at work and found new hobbies like playing disc golf. This pandemic really taught me to be open to trying new things.

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